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chapter twenty-four

It was 9:00 AM by the time the four of them reached the square. Bright sunlight filtered through the skyscrapers, baking the concrete and sidewalks. It was going to be a hot day. As they approached the square, it had even seemed like a normal day. People were going about their business, crossing streets and boarding subways. But as they got closer and closer to the heart of the city, where the activity was usually the most frenzied, they saw less and less people.

Zain was getting antsy, but had been kept from eating anyone (for the most part) since the police were keeping people away from him. News stations and radios had cautioned everyone to stay away from the square. Unfortunately, there had been a few casualties�some pixie police officers and a belligerent drunk who refused to heed warnings and snuck through the police barrier. Zain had taunted Iris for an hour or so, calling her a coward. His taunting didn't bother anyone, but when he began to threaten to leave and come looking for her, they decided to let him know she was on her way. That had been half an hour ago. The news had pacified him at first, but by now, he was getting impatient.

Iris knew she wasn't getting there a moment too soon. Getting everything ready had taken some time. It hadn't helped that she'd had to argue every step of the way. First, Price hadn't wanted to allow her to face Zain. He'd wanted to send in scores of pixie police. Iris had pointed out to him what Zain had already done to the pixie police. Sending them in to fight him was a suicide mission. She was the only one who'd managed to survive an encounter with Zain. She needed to face him. Price had finally agreed, but he'd loaded her up with weapons�knives and guns. He wouldn't listen to her protests that they wouldn't work.

So, she was going to fight Zain with Tal for back up. Jaq and Billy both hated this idea. They wanted to help. Iris thought it was too dangerous. Billy and Jaq were both essentially human. Zain could melt them and suck them up with one touch. They knew he couldn't melt Iris, and since Tal was a black pixie, he shouldn't be able to melt him either. Of course, Zain hadn't killed any black pixies, so they weren't sure exactly what he could do to them, but Iris was pretty sure he should be more difficult for Zain to handle. It had taken longer to argue with Billy and Jaq than it had to argue with Price, but finally they'd agreed, albeit reluctantly.

Iris and Tal made their way through the police barrier. Jaq and Billy stayed behind. The weight of the weapons made it difficult for Iris to walk normally. She was a small woman, and she wasn't strong. She didn't think she could even lift the gun Price had given her, much less aim and shoot it, so she slipped it off and handed it to one of the policemen. Slung over her shoulder and around her torso was their real weapon, anyway�a rope.

Buckingham and Melora had said two things to her in her dream. Buckingham had said that Zain was made from the hair of the ancients. Melora had said that humans' use of technology reminded her of real magic. When Iris put the two together, she came up with the answer: use human technology to synthesize ancient hair. Price had the bits of Zain she ripped away and had analyzed them in Magic Management's lab. Since Zain was made from the hair of the ancients, it stood to reason that duplicating the substance he was made of and making it into a rope would work the same way it had for the pixies originally. They could tie Zain up with it and bury him. The only wrinkle here was that Zain wasn't sleeping this time. He was wide awake and ready to do harm.

She and Tal strode towards Zain, who was sitting on the sidewalk Indian-style, cradling his chin in his hands. Upon seeing them, he got to his feet.

"Ghoul," he said. "I was beginning to think you weren't going to show."

Iris smirked. "What? Because of little old you? Let's get this done."

She slid the rope over her head and held it with two hands. It was still coiled up, but it made a wide circle, and Iris hoped she could slip it over Zain's head. Easy. She raised the rope and lunged at Zain.

Calmly, Zain sidestepped. Iris got a face full of concrete. The impact jarred the rope from her hands. She started to scramble to her feet, but Zain kicked her stomach and she curled up in pain.

Tal darted past them and retrieved the rope. Grabbing one end, he looped it around Zain's legs and pulled. Zain lost his balance and fell. Zain half-turned from his position on the ground in order to see Tal. Then Zain's fingers and hands fell apart into tiny wavering strands that tangled themselves around Tal.

Iris stood up. She was bleeding. Her chin was scraped and her palms were filled with tiny pieces of sidewalk, but she wasn't hurt any worse than a bike wreck.

Blue sparked began to fly from Zain's strands, and Tal's illusionary body shriveled until he was just a tiny little brown man, fluttering near Zain's head on tiny gossamer wings. Caught in the web of Zain's strands, he flapped furiously, but the threads cut tightly into his body.

Numbness hit Iris like a truck. Tal's illusion had been keeping her from feeling it, but Tal's illusion had been burst, and now she was drowning in pins-and-needles. The sensation had spread deep into her chest and neck. Almost her entire upper body was numb. Iris staggered from the force of it.

Tal still had the rope, and he was flying around Zain's body, wrapping the monster up with it. The strands he was tangled in moved with him, so that Iris could see no more of Zain than a cloud of squirming threads, dancing with blue sparks.

Tal threaded himself in and out, but the strands tightened and bit into his leg, cutting it completely off. His arm came too. And his wings. Tal's body thudded against the pavement.

Iris screamed, diving at Zain and picking up the rope where Tal had dropped it. His severed hand still grasped it.

Zain threads touched her, but she couldn't feel them for the numbness. All that mattered was tying this monster up and sending him to hell. She pulled the rope tight around Zain's throat and yanked at it with all her strength. Strands danced out between spaces in the rope, but none of them touched Iris anymore, because Zain was bound. She could see that he was struggling against the rope, but he couldn't move.

Iris laughed. Success! She'd done it. She'd contained him. She'd won. Zain roared in rage.

An then, the rope holding Zain snapped in several places and he was free.

Immediately, his strands wrapped themselves around her wrists, ankles, and neck.

Iris couldn't believe it. How. . .? Price had said some-thing about not being able to identify all of the components of the Zain pieces. He said to create the rope, they'd made a few minor substitutions. Educated substitutions, he'd assured her. But whatever they'd used, it must have rendered the rope ineffectual.

But her dream. She'd almost felt as if it had been a message from beyond. As if Buckingham and Melora had come back from the dead to tell her how to stop Zain. She'd been so sure this would work. Iris closed her eyes and waited to feel Zain suck the magic from her body. He would drain her, and then he would kill her. He would cut her body into a million pieces.

chapter twenty-five >>

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