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Volodja waved at him, like you would at a mosquito, and started to the cave. "We go."

"Plokhoe mesto," the hunter yelled.

Accented Russian. That I understood. "He says this is a bad place."

Volodja pivoted on his foot, his gaze sharp. "You speak Russian?"

"I do. I also get very angry when people try to trick me."

He raised his hands. "No trick. You want orange things or not?"

"We do," Aunt B said. "Lead the way."

"Agulshap," the hunter said. "Don't go into the cave."

Agulshap didn't sound like a Russian word. "What does agulshap mean?"

"I don't know," Volodja said. "I talked to you: he is crazy."

Keira shook her head. "I don't like it."

I didn't like it either.

"Come along," Aunt B said. Her face still had that pleasant, sweet-as-sugar smile, but her eyes were hard. Suddenly I felt sorry for Volodja.

He pulled a torch out of his pack and lit it.

The mouth of the cave grew closer with every step. A few more seconds and it swallowed us whole.

* * *

The cave stretched on and on, tall, giant, vast. Stone steps carved into the living rock of the mountain led down below, and my steps sent tiny echoes bouncing up and down from the smooth walls.

"Little far," Volodja explained over his shoulder.

"Clear as mud," Keira muttered.

The stone steps ended. The only light came from the torch in our guide's hand. We crossed the cavern floor to a rough arch chiseled in the rock. Volodja stepped through. Aunt B followed, and then I did, with Keira bringing up the rear. We stood in a round chamber, about thirty feet wide. Another exit, a dark hole, yawned to the right.

"We wait," Volodja said.

We stood in darkness. This wasn't filling me with oodles of confidence.

Keira touched my shoulder. Something was coming.

The kid dove forward, through the second opening. I lunged after him and ran into a metal grate that slammed shut in my face. The second clang announced another grate slamming into place over our only exit.

I pressed against the wall, between the two exits.

"I thought so," Keira said.

Aunt B sighed.

We just had to figure out if this was a straight robbery or if someone had hired them to do it.

Someone shone a light through the grate. "I have crossbow," a deep male voice said. "Silver bolts. Give money."

"I don't understand," Aunt B said. "Where are the orange shapeshifters? Volodja?"

"No shapeshifters." Volodja laughed, a little nervous giggle. "You give money and you can go. Human girl stays."

"Don't I feel special."

"You trapped with us. Give money!"

"You have it wrong, dear," Aunt B said. "We are not trapped here with you." Her eyes sparked into a hot ruby glow. "You are trapped in here with us."

The happy dress burst. Her body erupted, as if someone had triggered the detonator, but the explosion of flesh swirled, controlled, snapping into a new form. A monster rose in Aunt B's place. She stood on powerful legs, her flanks and back sheathed in reddish fur spotted with blotches of black. Her back curved slightly, hunched over. She raised her arms, her four-inch claws held erect, like talons ready to rend, and great muscles rolled under her dark skin, promising devastating power. The monster snapped her hyena muzzle, the distorted, grotesquely large jaws opening and closing, like a bear trap.

Keira's dress flew. A werejaguar rammed the grate. The crossbow twanged; the shot went wide. The metal screeched and the grate flew past me and crashed into the wall. Men screamed. A body flew, like a rag doll hurled by an angry child.

I kept my place, staying clear. There was room for only one of them in the passage and I would only get in the way.

Aunt B dashed after Keira, yanked a struggling man, and slammed him against the wall next to me. Volodja's glassy eyes stared at me in sheer panic. He hadn't turned, which meant he likely couldn't hold the warrior form.

Aunt B's hand with fork-sized claws squeezed his throat. She snapped her teeth half an inch from his carotid. A deep ragged growl spilled from her throat. "Who hired you?"

"Nobody," he squeezed out.

"Who hired you?" Aunt B pulled him from the wall and slammed his head back against the stone.

"Kral! Jarek Kral!"

Aunt B squeezed. Her claws drew a bright red line on the kid's chin. "What were you supposed to do?"

"He wants human killed," Volodja struggled in her grip.


"I don't know! I didn't ask!"

Aunt B hurled him across the room and ducked into the opening. I moved to follow. Something clanged. The floor dropped from under my feet and I fell into the darkness below.

* * *

A second doesn't seem like much time, but the human mind is an amazing thing. It can pack not one but two short thoughts into the space of a second, thoughts like Oh shit and I'm about to die.

Rock flashed before me and I plunged into vast empty darkness, crouching in midair, trying to brace for impact.

The air whistled past me.

My ears caught a hum. My instincts screamed, Water!

I hit the sea. Like smashing at full speed into concrete. The impact slapped me and all went dark.

* * *

No air.

My eyes snapped open. I was suspended in salty water.

My lungs burned. I jerked upward. My head broke the surface and I gulped the air with a hoarse moan. It tasted sweet and for a few moments I could do nothing except breathe.

I survived. The impact must've knocked me out for a few seconds. My cuts hurt. Kate Daniels, extra-salt-in-the-wounds edition.

I tried kicking. Legs still okay. Arms moving. Body check complete, all systems go. I turned around. Weak green luminescence came from the moss growing in the rougher spots on the walls, doing little to combat the darkness. Still, it was good enough to see. During tech, this place would've been pitch-black. Thank you, Universe, for small favors.

I floated on my back, trying to look around. A huge cavern rose around me, its floor flooded with seawater. You could fit half a football field into it.

I turned and swam along the wall. I had a pretty good br**ststroke but my boots weren't doing me any favors. They sat on my feet like two bricks.

No way up. The nearly sheer walls rose straight up. A small stone ledge protruded on one side, barely four inches wide. Even if I could somehow climb onto it, I couldn't stay on. Far above, a black hole punctured the ceiling. I must've fallen through it. A few feet to the left and I would've splattered against the stone wall on the way down.