Blood Call
Chapter Nine - The Shifting Faces'

by Talya Firedancer

The moon burned a trackless path across the sky, hung low, a pitted polished disc whose customary silver had tarnished to a faded coppery gold. This strange alien moon seemed almost to hang lower in the sky than normal, yearning towards the Earth - or looming ominous portent. Its sullen, smoldering color was somehow like an outer sign of everything that had been going wrong lately. Kuwabara eyed the moon almost sourly as he shuffled along, big fists buried in his pockets, his battered face unusually pensive. And indeed, he had a lot to ponder.

Foremost in his mind, of course, was that less-than-satisfying encounter with the youkai Ryuji, today. It had been a slight to his tremendous manly pride in so many ways. First, another cursed youkai had had the gall and tasteless manners to interrupt a visit to Yukina-san - ah, Yukina-san! Bells sounded at the mere mention of her name!

Every time he considered asking Yukina-san to marry him, something interfered to crush his hopes that he was worthy of the sweet, fresh-faced snow maiden who was entangled so thoroughly in the innermost vanes of his heart. The incident today had been another such, quite naturally deflating the hours of preparation it had taken to get psyched up for the endeavor. And the flowers being crushed were the last straw.

Of course, he admitted to himself, it provided a convenient excuse to not perform the one action that would lay his entire being - nay, his very soul! -- on the line, in the hands of a pretty, sweetly innocent Koorime.

And rejection was one thing that he, Kuwabara Kazuma, did not deal well with. Those chance encounters provided him with a ready excuse to postpone the sheer heart-stopping terror that laying his entire soul on the line provoked in him. If Yukina-san said 'no,' his world would shiver to pieces - he just knew it!

So he prevaricated.

Kuwabara exhaled a tremendous gusty sigh that pulled up from the bottoms of his toes.

"Yukina-san," he pronounced her name, mournfully. Someday he would feel truly worthy of the dainty, snow-spun beauty, glowing treasure of the Koorime race.

Just not yet.

Yukina-san wasn't the only thing troubling him, though. First that encounter with Miiraju - who could have forced him to kill his own sister, and would have, if Shizuru's own reikan hadn't prompted her to knock him out with her typical cool take-charge manner. Then yesterday, he'd been confronted with the swordsman Ryuji, obviously another of Hakamura's assassins sent to kill them.

It was humiliating. He hadn't even overcome Miiraju through his own means. The Urameshi team had come to his rescue and he hadn't even been given the opportunity to fight like a man.

"Yoshi!" he exclaimed, lifting a fist to the sky. "I, Kuwabara Kazuma, accept this challenge! I will defeat Ryuji, with no help from others - man to man! Er, youkai."

He continued to trudge up the sidewalk, but his shoulders lifted a bit straighter, firm with his resolve. He nodded, a confident grin stretching his features.

A whisper of reikan flitted through his brain and he looked up sharply, given a split second of precognition to react. A small dark shape flitted across the swollen red moon, gone in the next instant.

Hiei - ?

What was that annoying fire demon up to now? He'd disappeared during their briefing in the Reikai, and now he showed up in the Ningenkai. Kuwabara shrugged. He'd always wondered where Hiei spent his time while he was in their world, but it didn't matter enough for him to ask and be rudely rebuffed.

That was another thing bothering him - the sudden death of that white-haired youkai, Ariodh. It had been shocking to hear of Ariodh's death, making a sacrifice move to kill Hino Seiki. He'd kinda liked the little white-haired youkai. She was like Hiei but a lot more adorable. To hear that she was gone, so quickly, was more than a little unreal. It was a confusion tugging at his senses. That's not right, something inside him whispered. He shrugged. He supposed it felt wrong because he hadn't been there when it had happened.

Kuwabara shoved his hands back into his jean pockets and made his way home. Next time Ryuji showed up, he would be ready.

* * *

Yuusuke stared at Keiko.

Keiko stared back, a grim little smile contorting her lips.

"Bochu magic - " he echoed Koenma weakly, the pieces suddenly falling into place. The type of magic that fed off of sexual energy to manipulate the target's ki levels. And Ekoi, his assassin, was not only a mistress of spheres of transformation and mimicry...but bochu magic, too!?

Keiko backed up, her pretty face twisting into a pouting snarl. But it wasn't Keiko. Her features blurred for an instant, becoming sharper, the hair peeking through with a hint of purple, then she snapped into focus again, still Keiko.


She put a hand to her hip, demeanor taunting. "Very good, lover boy." Suddenly her stance changed and she lunged, nails jabbing out claw-like to gouge for his eyes.

Yuusuke dodged easily, tumbling to the side and rolling to his feet with the momentum. Her advantage of surprise was gone. Then he winced a little, putting a hand to his head. He wasn't as fast as usual.

Ekoi-Keiko smirked. "Not feeling quite up to speed?" He rubbed the back of his hand over his lips, grimacing. Suddenly his mouth tasted metallic. That kiss...

Yuusuke's knees buckled and Ekoi darted forward again to drive her hand into the side of his neck, seeking a pressure point. He just barely evaded her strike, staggering against the brick wall of the alley. With a hand he braced himself, breath laboring in his windpipe as he tried to gather his ki, and felt it only scattering further beyond his control.

If Ekoi was wearing Keiko's guise, she'd used a sphere of transformation - so where was Keiko!?

A jolt of rage crackled along his spine, and it galvanized him into action, flinging himself away from Ekoi's lunge again. She threw out her leg, kicking him neatly in the kneecap and Yuusuke went down in an undignified heap, swearing like a trooper. It was humiliating to be brought down so easily, and by a girl to boot!

Again he tried to focus his power, flipping onto his back to face Ekoi, and with a startled yelp he rolled as Ekoi-Keiko brought down her foot in a savage strike for his head. A cloud of dust puffed up where his head had been a split instant before.

"Where's Keiko?" he demanded, pushing himself to his feet.

Ekoi-Keiko smirked. "Worried about your loved one? You should be worried for yourself!" She launched a kick at him which he blocked, but hesitated before striking back. It was Keiko's face that confronted him, even though Ekoi's words spilled from her mouth. Ekoi swung around and struck at his head with a closed fist, face determined and narrowly focused. "Feeling the effects of your depleted ki?" she taunted.

Yuusuke winced as one of her strikes hit him in the temple, another grazed over his jaw. He staggered back. The adrenaline was not kicking in. He felt so damned drained, as if he'd already fought a full-scale battle and gotten the crap kicked out of him. But he pushed himself harder, as he had always done before and won, and threw himself down and around in a foot sweep.

Ekoi-Keiko laughed and avoided it easily. "So slow, Urameshi!" Yuusuke gritted his teeth and flipped her the bird. She laughed again, leaping for his throat with her hands extended. But it was Keiko's face that was transformed with rage, and Keiko was laughing at him as he gasped for breath. Drained...he was so tired! And Keiko's face followed him into the visions that swam up to enclose him in darkness.

* * *

The trees rustled with the breeze of a fitful wind that tugged them. Their heavy dark-dappled limbs lining the parkway were buffeted with the light wind and leaves took flight, swirling crazily outward in an airborne dance that contracted around the rangy frame of the tall, muscular ningen.

Crouched on a tree limb, the dark lumpish shape waited, its red eyes glowing dully in the overcasting blackness of the thick-leaved trees. A restless ripple spasmed over its shoulders, grotesquely deforming them it seemed, until the batlike wings flicked out a little, preparing to snap out to full length.

Ryuji was completely focused on his prey.

The ningen's senses were night-dulled; he didn't even suspect Ryuji was trailing him. White fangs gleamed against shadows' recoil as the youkai allowed himself to savor the knowledge of assured triumph.

A silhouette flitted against the moon, casting brief imprint over his face and Ryuji started. And there -- that youki.

The fire demon, the swordmaster.

Now there was a match worth fighting.

Ryuji contemplated the ningen for another millisecond before leaping off the branch, his wings fully extended into flight. He could kill the ningen any time; that creature was all too easy to track, with its complacent daily routine. It was the fire demon, the black little youkai nearing the Gate to the Makai, that he truly wanted to face.

His reputation was growing at a fearsome rate. And once he crossed into the Makai, he'd be that much harder to find.

Swiftly Ryuji brought his own youki to the fore, engaging its camouflaging properties as he followed the diminutive fire demon. The creature was potentially very powerful - excellent! That would make it so much more fun.

And more honor accruing to him, when he defeated Hiei.

* * *

Kurama turned into the softness of the pillow, hand tracking over the rumpled white sheets to tuck around a curve of warm flesh and finding nothing. A puzzled frown collected over his pencil-fine brows and he rolled over, pushing himself up on one elbow, brilliance of jade eyes popping open to glance over the shadow-creased sheets thoroughly.

Hiei was gone.

With a low-voiced curse he stumbled off the futon and over to the window. Katana and cloak were gone, as well as any traces of his lover's powerful youki. Hiei was well and truly departed.

He'd lied.

Kurama returned to sink wearily onto the moon-washed bed, shuttering aside all useless thoughts that whispered he was the cause of Hiei's departure. Doubtless it was some honor-related concept that had driven Hiei away, whether because of the dilemma with the shapeshifter - still out there, somewhere - or something more subtle concerning Ariodh.

He still couldn't believe she was dead.

It had been far too fast, too too sudden. And he wondered what had prompted her to sacrifice her life for Hiei's - although he was ashamedly grateful that she had. Still, it was unbelievable. But with the amount of sheer shattering power in that last strike, there was no way she could still be alive.

Now Hiei...

Kurama frowned suddenly, resolved. Hiei was fooling himself if he didn't think he would make good on his promise to follow him to the Makai.

Which he'd soon as he'd taken care of that shapeshifter. What would be next? He'd tried Shiori, he'd tried Hiei... what would it try to disarm him with next?

Hiei's absence seemed suddenly like a not-so-subtle warning, to him, and Kurama pushed himself off the bed with a snort that sounded very like a certain fire demon. Perhaps he was getting soft, with a year of simple ningen living behind him that even a daily workout routine couldn't quicken into the state of awareness that fresh danger and the necessity of keeping a sharp edge would require. Perhaps there was the real reason for Hiei's departure, a wake-up call to awareness while removing a source of distraction. A wry smile curved Kurama's lips. Hiei accused him of being unsubtle?

He dressed quickly in light sleeping clothes that would be easy to fight in but still comfortable. And, of course, the light green hue went well with his hair and eyes. He smiled a bit wistfully. Hiei wasn't here to call him a vain kitsune - but he could still hear the familiar phrases in his head.

A soft snort. Hn. Baka. He pummeled at his pillow, twisting it into a comfortable shape before settling down with the heaviness of sleep tugging at his eyelids. He was more tired than he'd thought. Kurama stretched luxuriously. Hmm, but it had been worth it. If only Hiei hadn't left... his eyes drifted shut. They snapped open wide again, startled orbs the precise shade of a sun-darkened leaf, when he sensed familiar ki by the window. A soft, almost hesitant tap at the moon-silvered pane informed him his sense was correct.

"Massaka..." tumbled disbelievingly from his lips. "It's not possible."

Slowly he padded over the silvery-pooled rug, cautiously approaching the pane etched over sharply with the backwashed light of the moon. The beams cast a shadow, a thin sharp profile framed with masses of hair. Kurama stood away from the window, eyes narrow with suspicion. The youkai raised her slender hand and tapped on the window again, crystalline blue eyes seeking and finding him, and her face lit up.

Kurama put a hand to his tangled red hair, preparing to pull free the Rose Whip.

"Ariodh is dead."

* * *

Kuwabara pushed open the door, his long face drawn even longer in thought. He ambled almost aimlessly into the kitchen, where his sister was chaining a fresh cigarette, and plopped into a chair opposite her with a thunderous sigh. Shizuru eyed him reflectively and puffed a smoke ring in his direction. Absently he blew at it, shattering it to pieces, and resumed his rapt contemplation of the grained pattern of the tabletop.

Shizuru raised an eyebrow. "Yukina?"

Kuwabara raised a mournful expression and she snorted. "Not just Yukina-san," he contradicted.

"Ah, sou desu. The Urameshi team has been reactivated, ne? Still upset about Miiraju?"

"Hmph," Kuwabara responded, disdaining to add substance to his sister's (accurate) assessment.

"And because of your ignominious defeat you now feel unworthy of the attention of the lovely ice maiden who holds your heart in her unwitting grasp."

That provoked a startled "Hunh!!" out of Kuwabara.

Shizuru sighed. "Please, Kazuma, give me some credit. I'm your sister, after all."

"What's for dinner?"

Shizuru pushed back her long brown hair, jutted the cigarette at an angle, and scowled. "That's it?"

Kuwabara regarded his hands avidly, not meeting her eyes. "Aa."

She snorted. "Kazuma, you need some advice on how to deal with women."

He blinked at her, suspicious. "Nani?" he inquired gruffly. "What's that supposed to mean?"

Shizuru blinked back at him solemnly. "Kazuma, you have been at this for three years now. Where has it gotten you?"

Kuwabara turned bright red. "Nani!?" he repeated, almost screeching, then he subsided into a sullen, brooding sort of silence. "Neesan - it's gotten me so deeply in love...I just...I..." He faltered and fell silent.

Shizuru took a long thoughtful drag from her cigarette, then blew a long slow twirl of smoke in the air. She tilted her head to regard her morose brother with a knowing, ever-so-slightly bittersweet smile. "Hurts, doesn't it?"

"Aa...I don't know what to do, 'neesan," he admitted, raising his eyes to meet hers. His face looked unexpectedly pensive. "It's not just Yukina-san. It's everything, lately...and not things that I can just pound into submission. It's been a year since I've fought like this..." He fell silent again, and Shizuru blew another ring of smoke into the air, eyes watchful.

"Kazuma. You'll do just your own haphazard you always have."

They both studied the tabletop with fascination.


Shizuru's lip quirked. "Think nothing of it, otouto."

* * *

Hiei plunged deeper into the forest, scowling blackly. Any youkai happening across his path now would surely shrink back in fright from the ominous expression on his face, sudden death on a knife's edge of readiness. What pissed him off even more fiercely than the manner in which he'd left Kurama was the creature who had been tracking him since passage into the Makai.

He was not in the mood to be stalked.

He paused, sheltered, in the depths of a tree, and considered his options. He wanted to toy with this would-be attacker, make them bleed and regret the misconceived notion that they'd ever come after him. However, he had a sneaking suspicion that it was one of Hakamura's minions, and they badly needed to know how the bastard was still alive. Some kind of capture, then. Or at least torture.

Hiei leapt to the ground once more, a swift black streak, still deeply robed in shadows. He cocked his head. Sounded like...noises of a scuffle. The steady wingbeats of his tracker had ceased.

Then...there...a soft, smothered curse.

He remained utterly still. What was going on?

Stealthily, Hiei unsheathed his katana. He wanted to be ready for whatever might occur. He began to move again, every step noiseless as he made his way more deeply into the forest.

A swish, rustling of leaves - to the left!

Hiei whirled, sword at the ready.


What in burning Makai was going on here?

He approached the underbrush warily, ready at any instant for the attacker that he knew must be there, even though he couldn't detect any youki. And his swift reflexes saved him, as he leapt back from the tangled coil of sparking brilliance that leapt out, snapping for his body.

Hiei tumbled as something seized him from behind, and as he came to his feet he struck with his katana, sheathing it deeply in something that squirmed away, hissing viciously. He was thrown forward into another set of sparking ribbons, a cocoon of wards that wrapped around him tightly.

The angry fire demon shouted and lifted his right arm to call forth the Kokuryuuha - trapped and unsure of his attacker it was best to use his most formidable attack - and his arm was instantly pinioned to his side. Bemused, Hiei wavered on his feet, even as he felt a cold touch slide over his face, clammy and chilling. He jerked back and crashed to the ground as the wards wrapped tight around his body, a painful, humiliating trap.

"Teme-" he choked out, overwhelmingly aware that if he hadn't left Kurama's side this embarrassment would not have happened. But at least Kurama would be safer, without him.

The clammy flesh pressed firmly over his face and his eyes fogged shut. *Kurama...gomen nasai...*

* * *

Keiko's face loomed above him, a grotesque parody of rage, laughing. Yuusuke growled, found he had no breath, and coughed instead. And suddenly there were two Keikos, and one of them was equipped with a frying pan and a very determined expression.


The throttling-Keiko fell to the alley floor, twitching, her eyes spiraling in wonked-out circles.

Keiko stood over the body of the fallen woman, breath heaving a bit, her brown eyes wide and a bit wild-looking. She was grabbing the handle of the frying pan so tightly her knuckles whitened with the strain. Ekoi's face blurred back into view, the sharp but sculpted features lax with unconsciousness. Curves of purple hair looped over to partly hide her face and the line of one shoulder.

"Kisama," Keiko spat. "NO ONE gets to beat up Urameshi Yuusuke but ME."

Yuusuke sank to the ground with relief, one hand coming up to rub the back of his head ruefully. "Ch', Keiko! Where the hell have you been?"

Keiko's gaze settled on him. She snorted. "In the restaurant, baka, running the business where you should be."

He grinned sheepishly. "Gomen nasai," he apologized, bouncing to his feet to grab her by the waist. She swatted at his chest, looking irritated.

"I should've known it wasn't you," he said cheerfully. "She was WAY more affectionate than you are!"

"NANI!?" Keiko yelled, bringing up the frying pan to clobber the back of his head.

Yuusuke fell, spirals dancing in his eyes. Keiko blinked at her fallen fiance and brought a hand to her mouth. "Ooops. I guess I hit a little too hard for his swollen head."

Then she eyed the fallen would-be assassin, nudging her with her foot and waving the frying pan absently in the air. "Now, what to do with you?" she wondered aloud. Keiko sighed. "Oi, I guess I'll just have to wait until Yuusuke wakes up, so that he can take out the trash."

Yuusuke groaned a little and slouched closer to the pavement.

* * *

"You have to tell her, you know."

Shizuru's calm, matter-of-fact tone pierced the smoke-hazed quiet that had fallen over the kitchen. Kuwabara raised a slightly-haggard, still contemplative face.

"I know," he admitted. His face pulled into a heavy scowl. "Yukina-san is too pretty and delicate for such a clumsy fighter as myself! Why, she's...she's..." He lapsed into a silly grin and starry eyes.

Shizuru let out an inelegant snort. "Kazuma, you'll never know how she feels if you don't ask." She put out her cigarette in the ash-laden tray in the center of the table.

"I know..." Kuwabara sighed. He grinned widely. "Yoshi! I'll do it tomorrow! I'll proclaim my feelings to the rooftops!"

"Unh-hunh..." Shizuru murmured, deadpan. "Just make sure you get Yukina in there somewhere."

He nodded vigorously, and was just about to add something when both their heads raised sharply, and the glass of the window exploded into the kitchen, showering all throughout the room. Kuwabara threw himself at once for his sister, knocking Shizuru off her chair and protecting her from the flying glass with his own body. They lay still for a brief instant before Kuwabara pushed himself to his feet, shaking his head, completely and utterly consumed with fury.

"REI KEN!" he shouted, hot yellow reiki flaring up in his hand, a jagged bolt of power that shaped into a sword born of his own psyche. He started. "You!"

Ryuji's misshapen features stared back at him calmly, meeting the blazing anger in his eyes with a cold fire. "Shall we continue our duel?"

"Why now?" Kuwabara demanded angrily, pushing Shizuru back with one arm. "You bastard! How dare you barge into my home like this!? Now we have to replace the damned window again!"

A ripple of discontent passed over the creature's face, and Kuwabara felt a peculiar twinge in his reikan, something that whispered of Hiei, then shrugged it off. "I was diverted from my primary, shall we continue our earlier duel?"

The youkai fell into en garde position, unsheathing the katana and snapping into readiness in the blink of an eye. Ryuji's face bore a mocking expression, rather languid, as if he didn't expect this fight to last very long.

Kuwabara narrowed his eyes and struck.

Shizuru prudently exited the kitchen, pulling a fresh cigarette from her back pocket.

Ryuji met the rei ken squarely with his own blade, and the two gritted their teeth as they faced off over the locked blades. Then the youkai leapt back, wings flicking and Kuwabara jerked. Ryuji took advantage of that brief opening to lash his sword, whiplike, at Kuwabara's torso and he dodged but not quite quick enough - Ryuji's blade laid open his shoulder.

Kuwabara released a cry, more anger than pain, then launched himself at the youkai again, free hand clutching at his bleeding shoulder. Again they reached a deadlock over the joined hilts of their blades, and this time Kuwabara used brute strength to toss Ryuji back, out of the kitchen. Shizuru again retreated sensibly.

"Kazuma, if this creature tears up the apartment, I'm billing you for the damages," she informed her brother.

Kuwabara gritted his teeth. "'Neesan!" he complained. "You're not helping!" He parried one of Ryuji's lightning-quick strikes and did his best to return underneath the onslaught.

Ryuji reeled back from a wild blow, his eyes wide and disbelieving. "You bastard!" he hissed. A tear bled crimson along the line of bone on one dark wing, and the youkai winced in pain. Kuwabara grinned without humor. So, wings were his weak spot? He attacked again.

The youkai danced back from his strike, eyes burning and watchful, and snapped his wings tightly to his back, tucking them against the shelter of his body.

The sword rose high into the air, descending with a swift, decisive strike.

"Kazuma..." tumbled from Shizuru's lips, before she could even stop it, as the blood flew on the air.

* * *

Kurama pulled a rose free from his hair, nonetheless approaching the window. If there was the slightest chance... He hadn't wanted Ariodh to die. None of them had.

Gripping the rose firmly yet still avoiding the thorns, he yanked up the window. The white-haired youkai peered in at him, blinking her wide blue eyes solemnly at him, and wiggled her fingers. She looked tattered and worse for the wear, the sweats he'd given her in ruins, her face smudged with soot. "Ariodh...?"

She nodded and made a motion as if to hop off the tree limb, entering the room, but Kurama barred her way, jade eyes searching her face piercingly. The youki felt the same - she even looked like Ariodh...but... "You're dead."

Ariodh raised pencil-fine white eyebrows, one of them smudged over and blackened with soot. "Do I look dead to you?" she snorted. "Kurama...I'm hungry." There was a wheedling tone to her voice. Kurama gritted his teeth, suddenly unsure.

The shapeshifter. What would he try next...? He'd wondered too soon. He looked at Ariodh grimly, then stepped back, gesturing broadly to the room.

Her face lit up again and she climbed inside, swinging her legs briefly over the sill before jumping to the ground. His heart ached. She was so like Ariodh, but she was dead. His resolve firmed suddenly. This shapeshifter would pay for what he'd done, not only to him and to Hiei, but in spoiling the memory of the little youkai who'd valiantly given her life.

"I'm hungry," she reminded him, looking around the room curiously. To his surprise, she blushed. "Where is Hiei?"

A reluctant smile flickered over his face, then died. "He's gone."

"Gone?" she repeated in surprise. She pushed back a coil of white-blonde hair irritably. "Where did he go?"

"To the Makai, I guess," Kurama shrugged, hurting even more. It hurt to look at this copy. It hurt to think of Hiei. "Where's your soulsword, Ariodh?"

A telling question. A shapeshifter wouldn't possess one - and despite being able to imitate Ariodh's youki, it couldn't materialize a soulsword.

"I haven't been able to call it since I killed Seiki," Ariodh shrugged, her eyes dark and thoughtful. "I've never used up my youki like that before...I guess...I probably exhausted it for awhile."

Kurama raised his eyebrows. "Oh, really?"

Ariodh blinked up at him. "Hai, really. Where's the food?"

Kurama frowned at her. Ariodh tensed, her eyes growing somewhat flat, and she backed up, raising a hand as if to ward off an attack he hadn't even launched yet.

Nodding to himself, he bowed his head briefly. When he raised his head, his arm was upraised, too. "ROSE WHIP!"

* * *

White light flared and Hiei's pupils contracted painfully. His lips peeled back in a snarl as he strained angrily at his wards, and a hand closed over his wrist. Captured. He'd been captured...trapped somehow, by an unknown attacker. Presumably one of Hakamura's. He began to growl until his sense of smell told him something his dazzled eyes hadn't registered yet.

"Huh? A-Ariodh?"

The dim outline resolved itself into a little white-haired youkai with gem-brilliant eyes, illuminated by the glowing sprig of night-lily she held in her hand. The apparition gave him a grim little smile. "Quite a fix you're in."

"Hn. You're dead. So are you an illusion, or a ghost?"

"Neither, stupid," Ariodh replied, lifting the palm-sized dagger in her other hand to slice carefully through his bonds. His muscles convulsed as the blood rushed painfully back into his limbs, and he collapsed into Ariodh's arms. Embarrassed at such a display of weakness he pulled away, rubbing at his wrists.

He looked her over carefully. She looked thin, and very pale, but not ghostly - still dressed in Kurama's battered sweats, somewhat worse for the wear. Her whipcord frame was lashed tight with tension, but she was...alive.

Hiei hesitated for a long moment, then touched her shoulder, as if to ascertain if she was real. He was surprised at the surge of emotion that flared inside of him; if he'd been anyone but himself he would have hugged her. As it was, it was the most he could do to say, "Hn. I'm glad you're not dead."

Ariodh's answering smile was fleeting but it warmed her deep sapphire-blue eyes. "Let's get the hell out of here."

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