way the other mated pairs joined up within the magic. Psi energy flared as he shifted against her, lifting an arm as if to pull her closer.

Instead he took her hand, pressed their bleeding palms together, and completed the circle of ten.

Power zinged through the uplinked magi, and the red-gold buzz of magic went to a bloodred shriek that drowned out Patience’s cry of surprise. Frustration slashed through her, coming less from the interrupted kiss than from the fact that he’d used it—used her—to provide the final power surge they had needed to trigger the spell. The kiss hadn’t been about them at all. It had been about necessity.

Damn him.

The world lurched, and suddenly she was moving without going anywhere, her spirit-self peeling out of her corporeal body and caroming sideways into the barrier. Then there was a final wrench of magic as the Triad spell took hold, gripping her with an inexorable force that warned her there was no going back. Not now. Maybe not ever again. Gods.

She tried to take the anger with her, knowing that it was better to be pissed than depressed. But as gray- green mist raced past her, laced with lightning and the smell of ozone, all she could do was close her eyes and launch a forbidden plea. Please, gods, don’t pick us.

You’re a dick. The growl came in Woody’s voice, filtering out of the blur of transition magic. Even though Brandt hadn’t seen his winikin in two years, Wood remained the voice of his conscience. And it had a point.

He shouldn’t have kissed Patience in the middle of the Triad spell, shouldn’t have touched her beyond the necessity of the uplink. But for a second there, he’d felt a flash of their old connection, a spark not just of chemistry but of the simpatico they used to share, back when they made each other stronger rather than nuts.

And damn, it’d felt good, like old times. Problem was, she wanted old times all the time, and he couldn’t promise that anymore.

Which meant he shouldn’t have touched her at all, despite the lure of sex magic and the way their link had seemed suddenly stronger than it had in a long time, more alive than it ever was back at Skywatch. It wouldn’t last, he knew. Never did. But still, he held on to the feeling of connection as he materialized in the barrier: a gray-green, featureless expanse of leaden skies above and ground-level fog below.

The magi zapped in a foot above the ground and dropped, landing on their feet and then fighting for balance when the ground gave a watery heave and rippled outward in concentric circles that were mirrored in the calf- deep fog. The water-bed effect was new . . . probably another sign of the barrier destabilizing as the countdown neared T minus two years.

Brain working on the multiple levels of a warrior, Brandt filed the detail and scanned the scene—

fog and more fog, no surprises there—while another part of him double-checked that the others had made it through okay. Especially Patience.

She was right beside him. And she was pissed.

Pulling her hand from his, she broke their uplink. “If you didn’t think we had enough power to trigger the spell, you should’ve said something instead of just leaning on me for sex magic.”

“I didn’t—” Shit. It might not have been a conscious decision, but that was exactly what he—or rather his warrior’s instincts—had done. “Maybe I did. Sorry.”

He knew it wouldn’t matter to her that it had worked; she would care only that it hadn’t been about them. She didn’t want to believe that for the next two years and five days, they belonged entirely to the Nightkeepers and their blood-bound duties.

“Yeah. Well.” She shrugged and avoided his eyes.

Wearing no makeup, and with her long blond hair tied back in a ponytail, she didn’t look much older than the nineteen she’d been when they met. Which just made him achingly aware of how far they had drifted, how much momentum they had lost. He wished he knew how to talk to her.

Everything used to be easy between them. So why the hell was it so hard now? “Patience—”

“We’ve got company,” Rabbit interrupted. His eyes were locked on a section of the fog.

Brandt turned, annoyed, but also a bit relieved. It wasn’t like there was anything new he could say to her. And even if he had something new to bring, this wasn’t the time or place.

Following Rabbit’s line of sight, he didn’t see anything at first. But then the seemingly random curls of vapor took form, darkening to shadows and then coalescing into human-shaped figures that weren’t quite human. He tensed and automatically took a half step in front of Patience.

She moved away from him, snapping in an undertone, “It’s the nahwal. And I can fight my own battles.”

“Keep your guard up.” He wanted to tell her to stay safe, to duck the Triad spell, to . . . hell, he didn’t know. The words kept getting screwed up inside him, which was why he stayed silent. That, and the knowledge that destiny and the gods didn’t give a shit what the Nightkeepers wanted when it came to the end-time war.

The fog swirled as the nahwal approached. Brandt’s pulse picked up a notch. The Triad codex had mentioned that the creatures, which held the collected wisdom of each of the Nightkeepers’ bloodlines, would be needed for the second layer of spell casting, but the part of the accordion-folded text that had explained exactly how that was supposed to work had been damaged beyond recovery.

For the next part of the spell, the magi were flying, if not blind, then with some seriously low visibility.

The nine naked, sexless, hairless humanoid figures formed an outer ring concentric to that of the Nightkeepers. As before, the creatures had black, expressionless eyes and were adorned only by the bloodline glyphs they wore in stark black on their inner forearms. But where the nahwal had been stick thin and wrinkled before, now they had layers of flesh beneath smooth skin.

This was the first time Brandt had seen the change firsthand, and it was a damned unsettling reminder that nothing stayed the same.

Two of the nahwal—those of the jaguar and harvester bloodlines—looked almost human now. The one facing Strike and Sasha had a single ruby winking in its left ear and the former king’s personality, while Jade’s nahwal had a young woman’s curves and the attitude of her warrior mother. Lucius’s theory was that as the countdown continued, the leadership of each bloodline nahwal was being taken over by the ancestor who had the strongest connection to the surviving bloodline member. He’d predicted that the nahwal would all have evolved in preparation for the Triad spell.

Only the others hadn’t changed. They differed only in their forearm marks.

“Do you think Lucius was wrong about the connection between the nahwal and the Triad spell?”

Patience said softly.

“That, or only those two needed to change.” Brandt’s gut tightened as he did the math. The jaguar and harvester nahwal were blood-linked to Strike, Sasha, and Jade. Was that it, then? Had the Triad magi already been chosen?

The hope that he and Patience might be in the clear came with an equal thud of guilt. If the chosen survived, they would spend the rest of their lives sharing skull space with their strongest ancestors.

The power would be incalculable . . . but so would the chaos.

If he could have prayed, Brandt thought he would have done so right then. But praying had never come naturally to him, not even in the barrier, so instead he squared his shoulders and turned to face his nahwal.

He had seen his ancestral being only once before, during his talent ceremony. The other magi had all been formally greeted by their ancestral beings during the ceremony, and some had gotten messages from their nahwal in the years since. Brandt had gotten jack shit then, and now wasn’t any different. The eagle nahwal just stared at him.

Say something, damn it. His parents and two older brothers had died in the massacre; they should be inside the nahwal. So why wouldn’t they freaking talk to him?

“What now?” Strike asked the creature opposite him. The jaguar nahwal held out

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