kind of unpleasantness?” I asked.
lady in question fought against the Russian Imperial invasion of
their small city. The legend states that she placed herself onto a
rocky island a short distance from the cliffs and then called an
entire battalion of the invading Russian troops to her. She drowned
three motorized rifle companies before the few survivors finally
managed to reach the rock. She was torn apart. Quite literally, I’m
Catalina . . . I could picture my sister on that rock.
That’s exactly what she would do.
business.” The Records Keeper sighed. “The House hasn’t had any
female heirs since then. A very knowledgeable source has speculated
that it was a matter of choice rather than chance.”
abort female children?” Rogan asked, his voice cold.
is the rumor. The House refused our attempts to reach them for a
consult. They’re a very reclusive family. Thus, we are left on our
own, so after much deliberation, we are creating a new category for
Ms. Catalina Baylor.” The Keeper paused. “We shall refer to her
as siren.” She
would hate that.
is so very exciting. If this magic endures within your family, this
may be the beginning of a whole new subset. The rankings of the rare
magic talents may shift. We’re bringing in a powerful antistasi
Prime for her trials.” Like
aegis mages who blocked bullets and physical attacks, antistasi mages
specialized in defense, but against mental attacks. Well, at least
that should put Catalina’s mind to rest.
House?” Rogan asked. “Smith?”
Sagredo,” the Keeper said. Rogan
raised his eyebrows. I
glanced at him.
best antistasi Prime on record,” Rogan explained.
taking no chances,” the Keeper said. “Unfortunately, he is
otherwise engaged at the moment, so we will have to wait a couple of
days. Therefore, your trials will be set exactly one week from now,
next Sunday.” A
man marched into the room. In his sixties, but still athletic, he
wore black pants, a black T- shirt, and a black garment that could be
called a sweatshirt in the same way a Porsche could be called a car.
It had notched lapels like a suit, the stylish drape of a luxury
trench coat, and likely cost more than our mortgage payment. His skin
was a light bronze, his hair wavy and black with a lot of white. He
had bold, strong features: a broad forehead, black eyebrows, a
prominent nose, and a square jaw mostly hidden by a short beard that
was more grey than black. His hazel eyes, alight with intelligence,
looked at the world with a touch of humor. When I saw him for the
first time, I thought he looked like someone’s favorite uncle, who
owned a vineyard somewhere in Greece or Spain, spent a lot of time
outdoors, and laughed often. That was before I knew who he was.
evening, Mr. Duncan.” The Keeper smiled. My
House formation would be witnessed by Mad Rogan, the Scourge of
Mexico, and Linus Duncan, the former Speaker of the Assembly that
ruled the magical families of Texas. Dear God.
late, I know, I’m sorry.” The former most powerful man in Texas
hurried across the room. “Some people insist on being annoyingly
difficult. What did I miss?”
of importance,” the Keeper assured him. Duncan
nodded at Rogan. “Major.”
Rogan replied. The
Keeper took out a fountain pen, cleared his throat, and glanced
at me, his black eyes sparkling behind his glasses. “Michael, if
you please.” Michael
stepped forward and produced a high- end camera.
verbal acknowledgment is required,” the Keeper told me, his tone
confidential. “You must say these words to me: I, Nevada Baylor,
petition the State of Texas for assessment and recognition of my
family’s powers. Are you ready?”
My heart was beating too fast. The
Keeper nodded at Michael. Michael tapped the camera’s digital
screen. The Keeper raised his pen and looked at me. My mouth had gone
completely dry. Somehow
I made my lips move. “I, Nevada Baylor, petition the State of Texas
for assessment and recognition of my family’s powers.”
Linus Duncan, Head of House Duncan, so witness,” Duncan stated.
Connor Rogan, Head of House Rogan, so witness,” Rogan echoed. “So
Keeper wrote today’s date on the page and added, Nevada Baylor on
behalf of herself, Catalina and Bernard Baylor. Witnessed by Linus
Duncan of House Duncan and Connor Rogan of House Rogan.
petition is granted,” the Keeper said. Michael
lowered the camera and set it aside.
is done,” the Keeper said.
Ms. Baylor,” Linus Duncan told me.
you for coming to be my witness.”
if you’re going to jump into the wolf’s den, it helps to have an
ally. Even if that ally is old with blunted teeth.” A
muscle in Rogan’s cheek jerked. He hadn’t said anything, but both
he and Michael watched Linus Duncan like he would sprout fangs and
claws any second.
hope you succeed,” Duncan said.
sound of a woman coming down the hallway in high heels echoed through
you expecting someone?” Rogan asked.
the Keeper said.
Outside the car, Atlanta crawled by. Magic drenched the city. Ever since I claimed it, the invisible currents gained definition. If I concentrated, I could sense them ebbing and flowing, like the waters of a sea.
Curran took his gaze off the road to glance in the rearview mirror for a second. “You okay there, buddy?”
“He just likes the sound of the new word,” I told him.
“He needs a venison leg bone to gnaw on,” Curran said. “They were my favorite.”
Kill me somebody. “Can it be a cooked leg bone?”
“He is a shapeshifter,” Curran said. “We don’t have to worry about bacteria and diseases.”
“I would feel better if it was cooked.”
Curran studied me for a moment, reached over, and squeezed my hand. “What’s bothering you about this? Did you want him to stay human?”
“No. I love him whoever he is. I spent thirteen months worrying that he will stop breathing at night, or get sick, or hurt himself somehow, and raw deer femurs don’t go along with that.”
“Cooked bones splinter. He will hurt himself.”
“Then maybe we can skip the bones altogether.”
Curran turned onto Jeremiah Street. “I let him eat a mouse in the forest yesterday.”
“He caught it himself. I’m not going to take his kill away from him.”
Curran leaned forward. “Is that who I think it is?”
I peered through the windshield. A tall broad-shouldered man sat on the steps in front of our office. He wore a white T-shirt, faded blue jeans, and heavy work boots. A worn Atlanta Braves cap sat on his short brown hair.
“It’s just Teddy Jo.”
Curran gave Teddy Jo a dark look. I reached over and squeezed his hand. “What’s bothering you about this? Is it because he’s Thanatos, the angel of death?”
He bared his teeth at me.
I stuck my tongue out.
The cart in front of us stopped, blocking the street.
“It’s because whenever he shows up, he drags you off and then you come back beat up.”
“I always come back beat up. I don’t see what Teddy Jo has to do with it.”
The Office of
House Records occupied a short tower of black glass on Old Spanish Trail,
across the street from the Bureau of Vital Statistics. The asymmetric building
leaned back, textured, its profile odd. As Rogan pulled his gunmetal- grey
Range Rover into the parking lot, I saw the front of the tower. It was shaped
like a feathered quill. The setting sun played on the dark glass. Only a
handful of cars waited in the parking lot. “Are you sure
he will be there?” I asked. “Yes.” “It’s Christmas
Day.” Rogan turned to
me. “He will be there, because I called and asked.” I gripped the
zippered file so hard, my fingers went white. Last chance to back out. Rogan
reached over, his magic curling around me. He took my hand and held it in his. “Do you want me
to turn around?” “No.” I
swallowed. “Let’s do this.” We got out of
the car and walked to the door. It slid open with a whisper, and we stepped
into a modern lobby. Black granite sheathed the walls, grey granite shone on
the floor, and in the center of the lobby, thin lines of gold traced a magic
circle. A guard looked at us from behind his desk and bowed his head. Rogan led
me past him to the elevators. The folder
seemed so heavy in my hands. All my doubts bubbled up and refused to disappear. “Am I doing the
right thing?” “You’re doing
the only thing that makes sense to keep your family safe.” “What if I
don’t qualify?” “You stood toe-
to- toe with Olivia Charles, a manipulator Prime, and you won.” His voice was
steady. “You will qualify.” “Thank you for
coming with me.” He didn’t
answer. He’d made it clear in the past that he expected me to walk away from
him the moment our family became a House. He didn’t think our magic was
compatible. If we had children, they might not even be Primes. He viewed this
as the beginning of our end, but he came anyway. He was also a complete idiot
if he thought I’d let him get away. He was mine. My Connor. The elevator
opened. We stepped into a hallway, with a dozen doors branching off from it,
all closed. At the very end of the row of doors, large double doors stood open.
We walked toward those doors, then through the doorway, into a huge circular
room. Books lined the walls, thousands of books on the curved wooden shelves,
three stories high, each floor with its own railed balcony. A grouping of
comfortable couches upholstered in dark leather occupied the center of the
room. Directly in front of it, between us and the couches, a round counter
rose. An old man sat
behind the counter, reading a book. His skin was a warm brown, pointing at a
Latin American heritage, his hair was white, and he wore a three- piece grey
suit with a tartan bow tie. He raised his head, smiled at us, and hopped off
his chair. His eyes, behind large glasses, were very dark, almost black, and
shiny like two pieces of obsidian. “Ms. Baylor,”
he said, his voice soft and cultured. “Finally.” “I’m sorry to
trouble you on a holiday.” He smiled
wider, showing white teeth. “Don’t mention it. It is, after all, my job. I
would’ve done it anyway. I was in downtown Houston, in the tunnels, when the
Old Justice Center fell. I owe you and Mr. Rogan my life.” A man emerged
from a shadowy alcove in the side wall, moving silently across the floor. In
his mid- twenties, he wore expensive shoes and a sharp black suit, with a white
shirt that looked even whiter against his light bronze skin, and a black tie.
Black and grey tattoos covered his hands and neck. His dark brown hair, cut
short on the sides, but longer on top of his head and slicked back, defined a
long handsome face, with intelligent eyes the color of whiskey. He looked
dangerous and slightly mournful, like a Prohibition- era gangster at a funeral. “It’s not every
day one gets to register an emerging House,” the Records Keeper continued. He
leaned closer and smiled at me, as if sharing a secret. “Especially one with a
truthseeker in it. I’m so very excited to meet you. Michael is also very
excited, aren’t you, Michael?” Michael nodded. The Records
Keeper put on a pair of linen gloves and turned around. Behind him a massive
book lay on a pedestal under a glass hood. He raised the hood, picked up the
heavy volume, bound in marbled leather, and placed it on the counter. An
elaborate gold crest decorated the front panel. “It’s
beautiful,” I said. “It is.
Eighteenth- century Dutch binding. The Houses of Texas have been recorded in
this book since before statehood.” He opened it
gently and showed me an empty page. “If you pass the trials, your House will be
written here.” He turned the
heavy pages to the red bookmark. Four columns of names written in beautiful
calligraphy covered the page. Some were crossed out. “Are those the
people who failed the trials?” He nodded.
“Indeed. Now then, do you have the necessary paperwork?” I passed him
the folder. He opened it, scanning the pages. “Where is the
second witness?” Rogan asked. “Running late.
Given the circumstances, I wanted to make sure to select someone whose
reputation is beyond contestation. Someone whose name commands respect. I think
you’ll be pleasantly surprised.” “A witness to
the emergence of a House has certain obligations,” Rogan told me quietly. “Like what?” “We’re expected
to offer advice and guidance.” The Keeper
checked the signatures and raised his head. “You’ve presented us with a
conundrum, Mr. Rogan. Finding a suitable test for a truthseeker was
challenging, but identifying the younger Ms. Baylor’s magic was even more so. I
must say, your sister’s power is something truly remarkable. It is, of course,
a mental branch, but what subset? One would naturally lean toward a psionic,
but a psionic who evokes a genuine love has never manifested. Michael and I had
to dig very far through our archives and other archives. Favors were called in,
access to databases had to be requested, and foreign Keepers of Records were
consulted. But we persevered, didn’t we, Michael?” Michael nodded
again. “We had to
reach very far, and we finally found what we were looking for in Greece. There
is a single House— just one, mind you— whose record showed the emergence of a
similar talent. Only in female offspring. The last verified manifestation was
in the 1940s. Apparently, there was some unpleasantness.”
In the thrilling new novel from USA Today bestselling author
Kalayna Price, Alex Craft comes face-to-face with the walking dead….
Grave witch Alex Craft is no stranger to the dead talking. She raises shades,
works with ghosts, and is dating Death himself. But the dead walking? That’s
not supposed to happen. And yet reanimated corpses are committing crimes across
Alex’s investigation leads her deep into a web of sinister magic. When Briar
Darque of the Magical Crimes Investigation Bureau gets involved, Alex finds
herself with an unexpected ally of sorts. But as the dead continue to rise and
wreak havoc on the living, can she get to the soul of the matter in time?
The first time I realized I could feel corpses,
I had nightmares for a week. I was a child at the time, so that was
understandable. These days I was accustomed to the clammy reach of the grave
that lifted from dead bodies. To the eerie feeling of my own innate magic responding
and filling me with the unrequested knowledge of how recently the person died,
their gender, and the approximate age they were at death. When I anticipated
encountering a corpse, I tightened my mental shields and worked at keeping my
magic at bay. Usually that was only necessary at places like graveyards, the
morgue, and funeral homes—places one might expect to find a body.
I never expected to feel a corpse walking across
the street in the middle of the Magic Quarter.
“Alex? I’ve lost you, haven’t I?” Tamara, one of
my best friends and my current lunchmate, asked. She sighed, twisting in her
seat to scan the sidewalk beyond the small outdoor sitting area of the café
where we were eating. “Huh. Which one is he? I
may be married and knocked up, but I know a good-looking man when I see one,
and girl, I don’t see one. Who are you staring at?”
“That guy,” I said, nodding my head
at a man in a brown suit crossing the street.
Tamara glanced at the squat,
middle-aged man who was more than a little soft in the middle and then cocked
an eyebrow at me. “I’ve seen what you have at home, so I take it this is
business. Did you bring one of your cases to our lunch?”
I ignored the “at home” comment, as
that situation was more than a little complicated, and shook my head. “My case
docket is clear,” I said absently, and let my senses stretch. When I
concentrated, I could feel grave essence reaching from corpses in my vicinity.
All corpses. There were decades of dead and decaying rats in the sewer below
the streets, and smaller creatures like insects that barely made a blip on my
radar, but like called to like, and my magic zeroed in on the man.
“He’s dead,” I said, and even to me
my voice sounded unsure.
Tamara blinked at me, likely waiting
for me to reveal the joke. Instead I pushed out of my seat as the man turned up
the street. Tamara grabbed my arm.
“I’m the lead medical examiner for
Nekros City, and I can tell you with ninety-nine point nine percent certainty
that the man walking down the street is very much alive.” She put extra
emphasis on the word “walking,” and on any other day, I would have agreed with
My own eyes agreed with her. But my
magic, that part of me that touched the grave, that could piece together shades
from the memories left in every cell of a body, disagreed. That man, walking or
not, was a corpse. Granted, he was a fresh one—the way he felt to my magic told
me he couldn’t have been dead more than an hour. But he was dead.
So how the hell had he just walked
into the Museum of Magic and the Arcane?
I dropped enough crumpled dollars on
the table to cover my portion of the bill and tip before weaving around tables
and out of the café seating. Behind me, Tamara grumbled under her breath, but
after a moment I heard her chair slide back as she pushed away from the table.
I didn’t wait for her to follow me out as I all but sprinted across the street
to catch up with the walking corpse.
The museum’s wards tingled along my
skin as I stepped through the threshold. I’d been inside the museum a few
times, and the collection of rare and unusual artifacts from both pre- and
post-awakening was impressive, but I was a sensitive, capable of sensing magic,
and between all the security wards and the artifacts themselves, the museum
tended to be overwhelming. Definitely migraine-inducing in large doses. I noted
that the magic in the air was particularly biting today, like one of the
security wards had recently been triggered. I sucked in an almost pained
breath, trying to adjust to the sudden crush of magic all around me. The extra
sting of the deployed ward didn’t help.
I should have walked the extra few
steps to clear the entrance wards.
I’d entered only minutes behind the
man, but he almost barreled into me as the door swung closed behind me. His
shoulder brushed me at the same moment he hit the antitheft wards, and several
things happened at once. The wards snapped to life, blaring a warning to the
museum staff to let them know something was being stolen. Simultaneously, a
theft-deterring paralytic spell sparked across the would-be thief, locking his
body—and the artifact—in place.
Unfortunately, while the wards were
powerful, they weren’t terribly specific. Where his shoulder touched mine, the
spell jumped from him to me, immobilizing me as well. Under normal circumstances,
that would majorly suck. Under these circumstances? It was so much worse.
My magic still identified him as a
corpse. I could feel the grave essence lifting off him, clawing at me. My
mental shields, while strong, were already overwhelmed, and my magic liked dead
things. A lot. I hadn’t raised a shade in nearly a week, so the magic was
looking for release. Typically I made a point not to touch the dead. Now I
couldn’t get away.
My magic battered against the inside
of my shields, looking for chinks in my mental walls that it could jump
through. Fighting the spell holding me was a waste of energy—I was well and
truly caught—so I focused all of my attention on holding back my own magic. But
I could feel the chilled fingers of the grave sliding under my skin, worming
their way into me and making paths for my magic to leach into the animated
corpse frozen against me.
I wanted to open my shields and See
what the thing in front of me was truly made of. But if I cracked my shields to
gaze across the planes of reality and get a good look at the body, more of my
magic would escape. And too much was already whispering through my shields,
making fissures where more could follow. Sweat broke out on my paralyzed brow
as I poured my focus into holding my magic at bay.
But I was touching a corpse.
The grave essence leaking from the
body clawed at the fissures my magic was chewing through my shields, and it was
too much. If I could have stepped back . . . But I couldn’t.
All at once a chunk of my mental
wall caved, and the magic rushed out of me. Color washed over the world as the
Aetheric plane snapped into focus around me. A wind lifted from the land of the
dead, stirring my curls and chilling my clammy skin. I could now see the
network of magic holding me in place, as well as the knot of magic in the
sprung ward, but more importantly, I could see the corpse in front of me. And
it was a corpse, no doubt about it, the dead skin sagging, bloating.
But under the dead flesh, a yellow
glimmer of a soul glowed.
Which meant the body was both dead
and alive. Considering it was up and walking around, it was a heck of a lot
more alive than a dead body should have been.
The soul inside was the color I
associated with humans, so this wasn’t a corpse being worn and walked around by
something from Faerie or one of the other planes. I still couldn’t see
spellwork shimmering across the dead flesh, but it had to be there, binding the
soul inside the corpse. But whatever kind of half-life the man existed in
wasn’t going to last much longer if I couldn’t get hold of my magic.
The hole in my shields wasn’t huge,
but I could feel my magic filling the body. And the grave and souls didn’t get
along. I couldn’t stop the hemorrhage of magic, but I managed to slow it to a
I’d barely noticed the crowd
gathering around us until one of the museum guards began releasing the spell
holding us. If the antitheft paralyzing spell was dropped, I’d be able to get
my distance from the corpse.
But either he wasn’t a very good
witch, or he was stalling—likely to wait for the cops—because he was taking his
sweet time as more and more of my magic flowed out.
I’d ejected souls from dead bodies
before. While souls didn’t like the touch of the grave, they tended to cling to
their flesh pretty hard and it took directed magic to pry them free. I was
actively fighting expelling the soul, and only a small portion of my magic had
filled the corpse, but the soul’s connection to the body felt weak, tentative.
I couldn’t shift my gaze to the
museum worker, but I could see him out of the corner of my eye. Oh please,
release the damn immobility spell.
In a burst of light, the soul popped
free of the corpse.
Nothing about the body changed. It
had already been dead and it was still held immobile by the spell, but the soul
stood free. For a long moment it was almost too bright to look at, a
shimmering, crystalline yellow. But souls can’t exist without a body, and in a
heartbeat the glow dimmed, the form solidifying as the soul transitioned to the
purgatory landscape of the land of the dead.
If I could have stumbled back in
shock, I would have, but I couldn’t even blink in surprise. Not because the
soul transitioned—that I expected—but because the ghost now standing in front
of me was that of a young woman.
My focus shifted from the balding,
middle-aged man to the woman who might not have been old enough to drink.
Ghosts weren’t like shades. While shades were always an exact representation of
the person at the moment of death, ghosts tended to reflect how a person
perceived himself. Appearing a little younger or more attractive was common. I
supposed it was even possible that if someone identified across gender lines,
their ghost might reflect that discrepancy. But this ghost was a drastically
different age as well as being a different gender and ethnicity. And that was
The ghost-girl looked around, no
longer inhibited by the spell holding the body she’d been inside. Her dark eyes
rounded as her eyebrows flew upward and her motions took on the frantic
quickness of panic.
A panic that didn’t last long as a
figure appeared beside her. He was dressed from head to toe in gray and
carrying a silver skull-topped cane. The Gray Man. A soul collector.
I wanted to scream No. To run
between him and the girl who clearly hadn’t belonged in the dead body. Things
didn’t add up here, and I wanted to talk to the ghost.
But I still couldn’t move.
I stood silently frozen in place as
the Gray Man reached out, grabbed the soul, and sent her on to wherever souls
went next. Then he turned and looked at the body she’d vacated. His expression
gave away nothing as his gaze moved on to me. He gave me one stern shake of his
head, which could have meant he didn’t know what was going on or that he knew
but it wasn’t any business of mine.
Then he vanished.
Of course, that was the moment the
guard released the spell. I stumbled back as the now truly dead body collapsed.
I barely registered the gasps and
screams. I only half noted the gun that clattered across the marble as the
lifeless body hit the floor. I was far too busy staring at the spot where the
Gray Man and the ghost had been. She hadn’t belonged in the wrongly animated
body. So how the hell had she gotten into someone else’s body? And why?
“You’re saying the man was dead before
he ran into the security system?” The cop interviewing me looked up from his
notepad, one skeptical eyebrow raised. “And what makes you think that?”
“I’m a grave witch. I sensed him
when he walked by on the street,” I said, not paying as much attention to the
questions as I probably should have been. Most of my attention was focused on
the body that someone had draped a black tablecloth over just a few yards away,
still where it had collapsed near the door. When I’d first sensed the body—when
it was still up and walking around—it had felt like the very recently dead. Now
my magic told me it was older, days, maybe even a week, deceased.
I squinted, as if the action could
reveal more about the body. It didn’t, of course. I could have reached out with
my ability to sense the dead, thinned my shields so I gazed across the planes
and spanned the chasm between the living and dead, but there was a lot of
magic—both latent and active—in the museum, and my shields were already rather
worse for the wear after getting caught in the antitheft spell with the corpse.
The cop’s eyes narrowed. “So you’re
saying you noticed the deceased before he entered, and you followed him in?”
“I, uh . . .” Crap.
Yeah, I definitely should have been paying more attention to the questions at
hand. One look at the cop’s expression told me that I’d just gone from “unlucky
witness” to “potential suspect.”
The door to the museum swung open
and my gaze flicked over the cop’s head. Tamara stepped inside. She held out
her laminated medical examiner ID as she assessed the scene, clearly trying to
identify who was in charge.
“That was fast,” the other officer—
the one interviewing the museum curator—said with a look of relief on his face.
He wasn’t a homicide detective and he’d responded to a robbery call only to
discover a dead body. He likely wanted to hand over his notes and be done with
Tamara shook her head. “I was across
the street. At lunch.” The last words held the barest edge, no doubt aimed at
me. “I let my office know I was at the scene. The rest of my team should be
here soon.” She made her way toward the prone figure. Her baby bump was just
barely showing, but her gait had changed slightly. Nothing major, but I’d known
her long enough to notice. “Did anyone try to resuscitate the victim?”
The cop who’d been questioning me
held up one hand, two fingers raised, clearly indicating I shouldn’t go
anywhere. He half turned toward Tamara, never letting me out of his sight. Yup,
I was officially in his suspect category, and I hadn’t even told him I’d been
responsible for driving out the soul who’d hitched a ride in the man’s body.
“He was clearly dead when we
arrived, ma’am. I checked for vitals, but he was gone.”
Tamara nodded absently and reached
down to pull the makeshift shroud from the corpse. “What the—?” She jumped
backward, dropping the cloth. “Get a magical hazmat team here now. This body
needs to be sealed and contained behind a circle. Now.”
The cop in front of me radioed in
Tamara’s order as his partner began drawing a circle around the corpse. Tamara
kept backing away, never turning from the body.
I took advantage of the sudden chaos and slipped
around the officer so I could get a better look at the body. The shriveled lips
had pulled away from the corpse’s teeth, giving him an eerie death grin as his
skin had slipped down his face. This wasn’t decay that happened in less than
half an hour—this was days of rot. Which
corresponded with how long dead my magical senses claimed the man to be.
Tamara’s backward stride, steady and
slow as if she were afraid that if she turned and ran, the corpse would jump up
and give chase, had finally taken her to my side. I knew it wasn’t the decay
that had her on edge—I’d seen her happily autopsy bodies in much worse states.
No, it was a recent experience she’d had that had nearly killed her and her
unborn child. An attack by a body that had transformed after death.
She turned to me, her dark eyes
wide. “What have you gotten me into now? And why do I hang out with you?” She
hissed the question, her voice too fast, too breathy with fear. “You don’t
think he is. . . ?”
“A ghoul?” I shook my head. “Trust
me, I’ll never forget what they feel like. No, this is something different. I
don’t know what’s going on, but I definitely don’t like it.”
“I knew how it would end from the start,” he
continued. “Violence, magic, and fire. An old power got involved and
broke open the mountain under the castle to release the magic of a dormant
volcano. I knew I had to kill Lennart. We fought. I broke his
legs. He broke my back and threw me into the fire. The whole thing
Volcanic fire powered by magic would have melted
stone. He should’ve been instantly burned to a crisp. “How did you
“I teleported out. Had a water anchor in a
vial around my neck. There wasn’t much of me left. Roland put me
inside a phoenix egg for three months. Took me another five to get my
He’d spent three months in excruciating pain. He
said it so casually, as if it didn’t matter.
“If it wasn’t for Lennart, I might have
convinced her. She wavered.”
“I don’t think she did.”
God was dead.
No, that wasn’t quite it. He was dead.
No, that wasn’t it either.
Voices tugged on him, refusing to let him sink back into the numbing darkness.
He was laying on something hard and wet. The stench of sour, alcohol-saturated vomit hit his nose.
He was drunk. Yes, that was it. He was drunk and getting more sober by the moment, which meant he had to find something to drink or pass out again before the void where God used to be swallowed him whole.
Cold liquid drenched him.
“Get up.” A familiar male voice, but the identity of the speaker lay deep inside his memory, and to reach for it, he would have to think. Thinking brought the void closer.
“This is pointless.” Another voice he knew and decided to not remember. “Look at him.”
“Get up,” the first voice insisted, calm, deliberate. “Landon is winning. He’s killing us one by one.”
Something stirred in him. Something suspiciously resembling loyalty and obligation and hate. He tried to sink deeper into the stupor. God didn’t want him anymore, but the darkness was happy to take him in.
“He doesn’t care,” the second voice said. “Don’t you get it? He’s lost. He might as well be dead and rotting for all good he would do us.”
“Get the fuck off this floor!”
Sharp pain punched his skull. Someone kicked him. He briefly considered doing something about it, but that way lay reality. Staying on the floor was the better option.
“Hit him again, and I’ll split you sideways.” Third voice. Cold. He knew this one too. That one rarely spoke.
“Think.” The fourth voice. Collected, reasonable, dripping with contempt. “Right now he’s drunk. Eventually he’ll be sober. If you kick him in the head, you’ll injure his brain. What good is he then? We already have one brain-damaged imbecile. We don’t need another.”
One… two… three… The count surfaced from the muddled depths of his min. He used to count just like this to see how long the insult would take to burrow through the hard shell that was Bale’s brain.
“I’ll fucking kill you, Lamar!”
“Shut up,” the first voice said.
Yes. All of them needed to shut up and leave him the hell alone.
“Get up, Hugh.”
Stoyan, his memory supplied. Figured. Stoyan was always a persistent sonovabitch.
“We need you,” Stoyan insisted. “The Dogs need you. Landon is killing us. We’re being purged.”
Eventually they would go away.
“He doesn’t give a fuck,” Bale said.
“Bring me the bag,” Stoyan said.
Something landed next to him.
“It’s not gonna matter. He’s all fucked up. He’s laying here in his own piss and vomit. You heard that dickhead at the door. He’s been in this shithole for weeks.”
Hugh heard the zipper. Something was put in front of him. He smelled the stench of rotting blood and decomp.
“Even if he sobers up, he’ll crawl right back into the bottle and get shit-faced.”
Hugh opened his eyes. The severed head stared back at him, the brown irises dulled by the milky patina.
“He can’t even stand anymore. What are we going to do, tie him to a stick and prop him up?”
The world turned red.
“To hell with this.” Bale leaned back, readying for a kick.
Rage drove him up before Bale’s foot connected to the severed head. He locked his hand around Bale’s throat, jerked him off his feet, and slammed him down onto the nearest table. Bale’s back hit the wood with a loud thud.
“Halleluiah,” Lamar said.
Bale clawed at his arm, the muscle on his thick biceps bulging. Hugh squeezed.
Felix loomed on his right, reaching for him. Hugh hammered a cross punch into nose with his left hand. Cartilage crunched. The big man stumbled back.
Bale’s face turned purple, his eyes glistening. His feet drummed the air.
Stoyan locked his arms on Hugh’s right biceps and went limp, adding his dead weight to the arm. Felix lunged from the left and locked himself onto Hugh’s arm, trying to force an arm bar.
The world was still red, and he kept squeezing.
Water drenched him in a cold cascade, washing away the red haze. He shook himself, growling, and saw Lamar’s face.
“Welcome back,” Lamar said. “Let go of the man, Preceptor. If you kill him, there will be nobody to lead your vanguard.”
The void gnawed at him, the big raw hole where Roland’s presence used to be. It hurt. Hugh grit his teeth and forced himself to concentrate on the head on the table in front of him.
“When?” he asked.
“Six days ago,” Stoyan said. “He was out. He’d quit after you were forced out. He took a teaching job in Chattanooga. Taught high school French. He wasn’t a threat to anyone. They killed him anyway. I came to convince him to meet with you. I was too late.”
His throbbing head made it hard to think. “Camilla?”
Stoyan shook his head. Rene’s wife didn’t make it. Pain stabbed at him, fueling his rage.
“Dead,” Bale said.
“Purdue, Rockfort, Ivanova, all dead,” Stoyan added. “We’re it.”
Hugh surveyed the four men. Stoyan, dark-haired, dark-eyed, in his mid-thirties, looked haggard, like a worn-out sword. Felix, a hulking mountain of a man with reddish hair, leaned back, trying to stop a nose bleed. The bridge of his nose skewed right. Broken. Bale sulked in the corner. About five seven, five eight, he was almost as broad as he was tall, all his bulk bone and slabs of thick, heavy muscle. Lamar perched on the edge of the table to far right. Tall, whiplash-lean, and black, he looked twisted together from ropes of stringy muscle. Short hair, cut down to the quarter-inch length, framed his long face. A pair of thin, wire-rimmed glasses rode his nose. He was closing on fifty-five and he pretended to be older than he was.
The second-in command, the silent killer, the berserker, and the strategist. All that remained of his cohort leadership.
“This is the way things are now,” Stoyan said.
“Landon Nez is going down the roster of Iron Dogs and crossing out the names,” Lamar said. “Nobody is safe. We’re all tarred with the same brush.”
The Iron Dogs. His Iron Dogs, the elite private army he’d built for Roland. The name made him wince inside. The void gaped wider, scrapping at his bones.
He’d led the Iron Dogs, and Landon Nez led the Golden Legion, the necromancers who possessed mindless vampires piloting them like remote controlled cars. The Iron Dogs and the Golden Legion, the right and left hand of Roland. He’d hated Nez, and Nez hated him, and that’s the way Roland liked it. Hugh would’ve found a way to kill Nez eventually, but he’d made a critical error in judgement. Roland purged him. Now the lifeline of magic that anchored him to the man who’d pulled him of the streets was gone. His purpose, his teacher, his surrogate father, everything that was right and true in this fucked up world was gone. Life had no meaning.
“How bad is it?” he asked.
“We’re down to three hundred men now, with us,” Stoyan said.
A few months ago he’d left six cohorts of Iron Dogs, three hundred and eighty soldiers each. He’d hammered them into an elite, disciplined, trained force, the kind of soldiers any head of state would cut off his arm to have.
“There are more out there,” Stoyan said. “Some are in hiding, some are wandering about without any direction. Landon has bloodsucker patrols out. They are hunting us down.”
What the hell happened since he left? “Why?”
“Because of you!” Bale snarled from the corner.
Hugh looked at Lamar.
“Roland discovered an unpleasant fact,” Lamar said. “We do not follow him. We follow you. You are our preceptor. We’re viewed as untrustworthy.”
Idiots. “You swore an oath.”
“Oaths go both ways. Show him your arms,” Lamar said.
Stoyan yanked his sleeves up. Jagged scars marked his forearms. “He told me to raze a village and hang the civilians on trees to send a message,” Stoyan said. “I told him I was a soldier, not a butcher. He crucified the lot of us. Thirty-two people. I watched them die for three days. I would’ve died there.”
“What saved you?” Hugh asked.
“Daniels saved me. She pulled me off the cross and let me go.”
The name cut like a knife. It must’ve showed on his face, because Stoyan took a step back.
He shoved the name out of his mind and concentrated on the problem at hand. Stoyan would refuse the order to butcher civilians. That wasn’t what the cohorts did. The dark arm of Iron Dogs, which would’ve wiped the village off the face of the planet without questions, no longer existed. Roland was painfully aware of that. The order had been a test of loyalty, and Stoyan failed. Roland didn’t just require loyalty, he demanded unquestioning devotion. When he failed to receive it, he must’ve decided to purge the entire force.
A waste, he realized. He’d sank years into building the Iron Dogs, and Roland tossed them away like garbage.
Much like Roland had thrown him away. No, not thrown away. He’s cut me, his right hand, off.
This new heretical thought sat in his brain, burning and refusing to fade.
He groped for the tether of magic to banish the uncertainty and found only the void. It gaped at him, sinking its fangs into his soul. The invisible imperceptible tie connected them even when the magic waves waned and technology held the upper hand. It was always there. It linked them since the moment Roland had shared his blood with him. Now it was gone.
The void chewed on his bones, the heretical thought burned his brain, and he had no way to steady himself. An urge to scream and smash something gripped him.
The four men watched him. He’d known each one for years. He’d hand-selected them, trained them, fought with them, and now they wanted something from him. They wouldn’t let him alone until he did it.
“Unless we do something, none of us will be alive this time next year,” Felix said.
“What is it you want to do?” He already knew, but he asked anyway.
“We want you to lead us,” Stoyan said. “The Dogs know you. They trust you. If they know you’re alive, they will find you. We can pull in the stragglers and hold against Nez.”
“You don’t know what you’re asking.” To stay awake and anchored to reality, with the void chewing on him. He would go mad.
“I’m not asking.” Stoyan stepped in front of him. “I trusted you. I followed you. Not Roland. Roland didn’t make me promises. You did. You sold me this idea of belonging to something better. The Iron Dogs are more than a job. A brotherhood, you said.”
“A family, where each of us stands for something greater,” Lamar said.
“If you fall, the rest will shield you,” Bale said.
“Well, we’re, by God, falling,” Stoyan said.
“Do you know why you’re still alive?” Lamar asked. “Every day, every week, there is less of us, but you’re still breathing. If we found you, Nez can, too. I bet he knows exactly where you are.”
“I’m alive, because he wants me to be the last,” Hugh said. “He wants me to know.” Nez wanted him to watch as his necromancers tore apart everything he built, and when nothing was left, he would come calling to squeeze the last bit of blood out of the stone.
“What do we have?” Hugh asked.
“Three hundred and two men, including us,” Stoyan said.
“Whatever each one of us carries,” Bale said.
“None,” Lamar said. “We’re close to starving.”
Felix shook his head.
Perfect. Rock bottom isn’t the worst place to start from, and the Dogs who’d managed to stay alive were probably the smartest or strongest. He had three hundred trained killers. A man could do worse.
Rene’s head stared at Hugh from the table. He studied it, committing every detail to memory and hurled it into the void. The old days were gone. He would fill the bottomless hole with rage or it would drive him insane. Either way made no difference.
Hugh strode to the door and flung it open. Fresh air greeted him. A small ugly town sat in front of him, little more than a street with a few buildings and a rural road, leading into the distance to disappear between the fields. A sunset splashed over the horizon, dying slowly, and the three street lamps had come on already, spilling watery electric light onto the stretch of the road in front of him. He remembered oppressive heat, but now the air was too cold for summer.
“Fall or spring?” he asked.
“September,” Lamar told him.
“What is this town?”
“Connerville, Tennessee,” Stoyan said.
The last thing he remembered was Beaufort, South Carolina.
“Where is Nez?”
“In Charlotte,” Lamar told him. “He’s set up a permanent base there.”
Far enough to keep out of Atlanta and the surrounding lands. They belonged to Daniels now. But not so far that he couldn’t bring the legion down if Roland became displeased with his precious daughter.
He had to stabilize them, arm them, and find a base to keep them alive. Most of all, he had to convince Nez that attacking them now wasn’t in his best interests. If he kept the Dogs alive through the winter, by spring he would pick a successor and move him into place. Then he would do what severed limbs did. He would wither and rot.
Magic rolled over the land. Hugh couldn’t see it, but he felt an exhilarating rush that tore through him, washing away the headache that pounded at the base of his skull. The electric lamps winked out, and twisted glass tubes of fey lanterns flared into life with eerie indigo light.
He raised his hand and let it flow out. A pale blue glow bathed his fingers. Felix grunted as his nose knitted back together.
Hugh picked up Rene’s head. He would bury him tonight.
“Find me some clothes. And call Nez. Tell him I want to talk.”
He sensed the kick coming through his sleep and curled into a ball. It didn’t hurt as much this time. Emile wasn’t really trying. “You have a client.” He rolled up, blinking. He should’ve hidden deeper in the drum that was his nest. The drum lay on its side and it was deep enough so Emile couldn’t land a good kick. But it was so nice and sunny and so he’d fallen asleep on the rags in front of it. He looked at Emile and the man next to him. The man had dark eyes. He’d learned to watch the eyes. Faces lied, mouths lied, but the eyes always told you if the man would hit and how hard. This man was large. Big hands. Powerful shoulders. Next to him Emile looked skinny and weak, and he knew it too, because he forgot to sneer. All the street people called him Weasel because of the sneer, but only when he couldn’t hear. Emile was mean. He ran the street and when someone tried to stand up to him, he’d fly into a rage and beat them with a rock or a metal stick until they stopped moving. Emile jabbed his finger in the direction of the man. “Fix him.” The man held out his left arm. A cut snaked from his wrist all the way to the elbow. Shallow. Easy to fix. He eyed Emile. Usually Emile made him say nonsense words and drag it out, so it would look mysterious, but the man was watching him and it was making him uneasy. He reached out and touched the man’s arm, letting the magic flow. The cut sealed itself. The man squeezed his forearm, checking the spot where the wound used to be. “See? I told you.” Emile bared his teeth. “How much?” the man asked. His voice had an accent. “How much what?” “How much for the boy?” His heart sank. He scooted deeper into the drum, where he’d kept a knife hidden under his rags. He knew what happened to boys who were sold. He knew what men did to them. Rene was sold a month ago. A man took him away. Two weeks ago after the dark, he saw the same man leading Rene on a chain like a dog as they walked into a house. Rene was wearing a pink dress and he had a black eye. Emile promised not to sell him. That was the deal. He healed clients and Emile gave him food and protected him. “Not for sale.” Emile said. The man reached into his leather jacket. An envelope came out. A stack of money hit the dirt in front of Emile. A thick stack. More money than he had ever seen. Emile’s eyes got big. Another stack. He trapped in the drum. There was nowhere to run. Another. Emile licked his lips. “You promised!” he yelled. “Shut up.” Emile squinted at the man. “He’s a magic boy.” Another stack. “Take him,” Emile said. The man reached for him. He shrank back, his hand clutching the knife hidden under his filthy blanket. He wouldn’t be walking on a chain. The man stepped toward him, his back to Emile. “Drop the knife,” the man said. Behind him Emile’s face turned ugly. He lunged, a knife pointed at the man’s back. The man turned fast. His hand fastened on Emile’s wrist. Emile screamed and dropped the knife. The man pulled him over. “Take him!” Emile squealed. “Take him!” “Too late.” The man locked his left hand on Emile’s throat and squeezed. Emile clawed at the man’s arm with his free hand, flailing, trying to get away. The man squeezed. Something crunched. Emile’s eyes rolled back in his skull. The man let go and Emile fell down, limp. He scooted deeper into the drum. The man crouched by it. “I won’t hurt you.” He slashed with his knife. The man caught his hand and then he was yanked out into the sunlight and set on his feet. The man looked at his knife. “A sharp blade.” He held it out to him. “Here. It will make you feel better.” He snatched the knife from the man’s hand, but he already knew the truth. The knife wouldn’t help. The man could kill him any time. He’d learned this truth a long time ago: he was small and everyone else was big. The big kicked the small and the small hurt. He couldn’t fight the man. He would have to bide his time and run. The man took his hand and together they walked out of the alley into the market. The man stopped at the pirogi stall, bought a hot pirogi, and handed it to him. “Eat.” Free food. He grabbed it and bit into it, the sweet apple filling hot enough to burn his mouth. He swallowed his half-chewed bite and took another. He could always try to get away later. Eventually the man would look away and then he would run. Until then, if the man bought him food, he would take it. Only an idiot gave up free food. You ate it and you ate it quick before someone punched you and took it out of your hands. They walked through the marketplace all the way to the park to a man sitting on a bench reading a book. “I found him,” the man with dark eyes said. The man on the bench raised his head and looked at him. He forgot about the food. The half-eaten pirogi fell from his fingers. The man was golden and burning with magic, so much magic, he almost glowed. The magic touched him, so warm and welcoming, so kind. It wrapped around him and he froze, afraid to move because it might disappear. “Where are you parents?” the golden man asked. Somehow he answered. “Dead.” The man leaned toward him. “You don’t have any family?” He shook his head. “How old are you?” “I don’t know.” “Hard to tell because of starvation,” the man with dark eyes said. “Maybe six or seven.” “You’re very special,” the golden man said. “Look at all those people out there.” He didn’t want to look away from the man, but he didn’t want to disappoint him even more, so he turned his head and looked at the people in the market. “Of all the people out there, you shine the brightest. They are firebugs, but you are a star. You have a gift.” He tried to see the light the man was talking about, but he saw nothing. “If you come with me, I promise you that I will help your light grow. You will live in a nice house. You will eat plenty of good food. You will train hard and you will grow up to be strong and powerful. Nobody will be able to stand in your way. Would you like that?” He didn’t even think. “Yes.” “What’s your name?” the golden man asked. “I don’t have any.” “Well, that’s not good,” the man said. “You need a name. A strong name, the kind that people would know and respect. Do you know where we are?” He shook his head again. “We’re in France. Do you know who that man is?” He pointed a statue of the man on a horse. The man had a sword and a crown. “No.” “That’s Hugh Capet. He was the founder of the Capet dynasty. The kingdom of France began with his reign. The descendants of his bloodline sat on the throne of France for almost nine hundred years. He was a great man and you too will be a great man, Hugh. Would you like to be a great man?” “Yes.” The man smiled. “Good. Today is a special day because we met. Is there anything I can do for you on this special day? Anything at all? Ask me any favor.” Hugh swallowed. “My friend. His name is Rene. He has dark hair and brown eyes. He was sold to a man.” “Would you like him found?” Hugh nodded. The man glanced over his head at the man with dark eyes. “Find this Rene and bring him to me.” The man with dark eyes bowed his head. “Yes, Sharrum.” He walked away. The golden man smiled at Hugh. “Come sit by me.” Hugh sat by the man’s feet. The magic wrapped around him and he knew that from this moment on everything would go right. Nothing would ever hurt him again.
“Was that vampire from the People?” Sam asked.
“Golden Legion,” Stoyan said.
“Is that like the People?”
“The necromancers who work for Roland call themselves the People,” Stoyan explained.
“They call themselves that because they feel they are the only people. The rest of us are lesser mortals,” Lamar said.
“The best one hundred of them make up Golden Legion,” Stoyan said. “The Legion is led by a Legatus, the prick we’re riding to meet. Each Master of the Dead in the Legion can pilot more than one undead. A Master of the Dead can wipe out an Army company with one undead.”
“Depending on how big the company is,” Lamar said. “Regulations size for a company is between eighty and two hundred and fifty soldiers. Two fifty would be pushing it for one bloodsucker. The Legion would need at least three.”
“The point is,” Stoyan said, “When we meet Legatus, you’ll be deaf and dumb, you get me? If I hear one squeak out of you, you’ll wish you were back on the ranch getting strung up by that sheriff your daddy is so afraid of.”
“How will I know if he’s Legatus?” Sam asked.
Hugh thought about turning around and knocking him off his horse to shut him up, but it would take too much effort.
“Because he’ll look like the rest of the People,” Stoyan said. “Like an asshole in an investment banker’s suit.”
“That’s redundant,” Lamar pointed out.
“Who’s Roland?” Sam asked.
“Someone you need to steer clear of,” Stoyan said.
“An immortal wizard with a megalomaniac complex who wants to rule the world,” Lamar said.
“Why does he want us dead?” Sam asked.
“All you need to know is that he does,” Bale growled. “Now shut the fuck up, or I’ll count your teeth with my fist and then you’ll be busy picking them out of the dirt.”
Elara strode outside of the gate onto the top of the hill where the castle sat. Soldiers filed out of the forest, running three to a row. They wore black uniforms, some in armor, some without. Each carried a large backpack, a bedroll, and weapons. They moved in unison, their feet striking the ground at the same time.
She didn’t detect them in the forest, which meant they had to be far behind d’Ambray and his party.
The soldiers began to form a block, eight soldiers in a line. All of that equipment had to weigh at least twenty pounds. Probably a lot more.
“How long have they been running?” she asked and wished she hadn’t. Any show of interest was an opening, and D’Ambray would wedge his big shoulder through it and hold it open.
D’Ambray shrugged, looming next to her, a darkness shaped like a huge man. “From Aberdine.”
“Yes.” He turned to her, his dark blue eyes calm. “Would you like them to run back and here again?”
He was completely serious, she realized.
He turned to face the soldiers. They formed four separate blocks, each eight soldiers wide and ten lines deep, and froze, like dark statues against the green grass of the lawn.
“Do you want them to rest before we start?” she asked.
“Are you tired?” d’Ambray barked next to her, his voice carrying across the field. She almost jumped.
The three hundred and twenty people roared back in a single voice. “No, Preceptor.”
“They’re ready for your inspection,” Hugh said. “Darin, why don’t you go on and scout ahead,” Conrad said. “Make sure we don’t run into something.”
Darin clicked his mouth shut and rode on.
Conrad turned to Hugh. “I know what you’re doing. If the Lady wanted you to know, she’d tell you. Leave the boy alone.”
Hugh considered stringing Conrad up by his ankles. An hour or so with blood pooling to his head, and the older scout would sing a beautiful song filled with all of his secrets. He was still deciding if he were going to do it, when Darin came riding around the bend.
“A fort!” he reported. “Looks empty.”
Hugh looked at Sam and nodded at the column behind them. “Get Sharif.”
The kid turned his horse and rode back. Half a minute later, Sharif came riding from the back. The dark-haired lean scout had been covering the rear. Sam followed him.
Hugh touched the reigns and they rode on. The path turned. A wooden palisade rose to one side of the road, a ring of sharpened tree trunks ten feet high. A crude guard tower stood on the right, just inside the palisade walls, overlooking the road. A bell hung from its roof. The gate stood wide open. To the left, the road bent and rolled on, widening into what used to be main street of a small town stretching into the distance, an old pre-Shift two story house on one side, a trailer on the other, both mostly eaten by the forest. He could just make out the sharp point of a church steeple in the distance between the new trees.
The palisade lay silent. No sentries. No movement.
Hugh glanced at Conrad.
“This is new,” the older scout said. “Wasn’t here nine months ago.”
Sharif dismounted. Light rolled over his dark irises and flashed green. He inhaled deeply, crouched and sniffed the road.
“Nobody’s home,” he said quietly.
Hugh dismounted and fixed Conrad with his stare. “Stay here with the boy.”
If something happened to those two idiots, Elara would screech at him for days.
Hugh walked inside the gates. Three large log houses waited inside, two to the left and one to the right. In the back, an animal pen stood empty. The wind brought a hint of carrion.
“The road smells odd,” Sharif said quietly.
“Odd. Nothing I’ve smelled before.” He held out his arm. The hair on the back of its stood straight up. “I don’t like it.”
Shapeshifters had a freakishly strong scent memory, and among all of the shapeshifters, werewolves were the best. They had no problem taking a whiff of a blood smudge and sorting through a couple thousand scent signatures to identify a guy they shared a drink with once two years ago. Sharif had been with him for five years. If he hadn’t smelled it before, it had to be one hell of a rare creature or something new.
Sharif rolled his eyes for half a second before schooling his features into a perfectly neutral expression.
Hugh turned to the nearest house, walked up the wooden stairs onto the porch and touched the door. It swung open under the pressure of his fingertips. A simple open floor plan with the kitchen and dining area to the far left and the living room space to his right. A dinner was laid out on the table. He moved across the floor on silent feet to the table. The reek of rotten food made him grimace. Fuzzy blue mold blossomed on the leftovers. Looked like pulled meat of some sort with mashed potatoes on the side and a serving of formerly green vegetables. A fork lay by the nearest plate, its tines covered with the mold.
He crouched and looked under the table. A broken plate.
Sam was hovering nearby. Hugh pointed at the plate. “Thoughts?”
“It happened in the middle of dinner?”
Hugh nodded. “There is a walkway built along the palisade and a tower. What was under it?”
The kid took off.
Sharif crossed his arms. “I don’t like it.”
“I heard you the first time.”
Sam came back. “A broken plate.”
“What does that tell you?”
“There was a guard on duty. They brought him dinner.”
“Something killed him so fast, he couldn’t raise the alarm.” Sam paused. “Was he shot?”
“No blood spatter,” Sharif said. “But there is this.” He slid his finger down the wooden frame. Four long bloody scratches gouged the wood.
“And this.” He crouched and pointed to the floor.
A bloody human nail.
Sam’s face turned pale. “Something dragged them out of here.”
Hugh pivoted to his right. A row of guns and swords hung on the wall, just by the door. It would take him less than a second to cover the distance from the table to the wall. “Something smart and fast.”
“Vampires?” Sam asked.
“I don’t smell the undead,” Sharif said.
“But you do smell something. If Nez resorted to snatching people from isolated communities, he wouldn’t use the regular bloodsuckers to do it.” Hugh straightened.
“But why?” Sharif asked.
“That’s a good question.”
The People bought their undead by offering contracts to terminally ill. That was one of the cornerstones of Roland’s policy. He needed to seed his Masters of the Dead into every major city, and it was much easier to do that if the People seemed like an above-board operation, beneficial to the community. They ran casinos, they volunteered their services when undead were involved, and they offered the dying a chance to guarantee a payout to their families. If the general public suspected that the Masters of the Dead began grabbing warm bodies to turn into vampires, Roland would be livid and the guilty would be dead before they had a chance to repent their sins.
But the pattern did fit the navigators. A fast, stealthy surgical strike.
He headed for the door.
“Are there irregular bloodsuckers?” Sam asked behind him.
“You have no idea,” Sharif told him. The body of the dog sprawled under a bush. Blood stained the brown and white fur. Hugh crouched by it. Next to him Sharif leaned closer to the ground, staring unblinking at the crushed bushes and red-stained leaves. Karen, the other shapeshifter, dropped to all fours on the other side and took a long whiff.
Shapeshifters had their issues, but Hugh never agreed with Roland’s disdain for them. He understood Roland’s position well enough and recited it with passion when the occasion called for it, but when it came down to it, shapeshifters made damn good soldiers and that’s all he cared about. He braced for the uncomfortable flash of guilt that usually flared when he thought Roland was wrong. It never came. Instead the void scraped his bones with its teeth. Right. “He got some bites in,” Karen said softly, her voice tinted with sadness. “Good boy.” Sharif bared his teeth. The dire wolf was big and old. One of the shepherds had snapped a polaroid of him two night before when the beast prowled the tree line, studying the cows in the pasture. From the paw prints and the pictures, the old male stood two feet and ten inches at the shoulder and had to weigh close to one hundred and eighty pounds if not more. Wild wolves didn’t follow the strict alpha-beta pecking order people assigned to them. That structure was mostly present in big shapeshifter packs. Hierarchy was a primate invention. Instead wolves lived in family groups, a parent couple and their young, who followed their parents until they grew up enough to start their own packs. But this beast was alone. Something happened to his pack and he hunted by himself. A night ago he tried to take a cow. The dogs and guns ran him off. Then the magic hit. The old wolf was a smart bastard, smart enough to figure out that when the magic was up, guns didn’t bark. Still, he stayed away from the pasture and went for the easier target instead, a ten-year-old girl picking pears from the ground in the orchard while her parents were on ladders harvesting the fruit. The two dogs with the harvesters did their job, and their job was to give their life for their humans. They found the first dead hound at the edge of the woods. The second was here. Now it was up to human Dogs to settle the score. “Heartbeat,” Sharif whispered. Hugh reached out with his magic. The dog was a mess, torn and bitten, but a faint, barely-there heartbeat shivered in his chest. Hugh concentrated. This would be complicated. He knitted the organs together, repairing the tissue, sealing the blood vessels, mending the flesh like it was fabric. The two Dogs by his side waited quietly. Finally, he finished. The dog raised his head, turned in the brush, and crawled toward them. Sharif scooped the hundred and twenty-pound hound up like it was a puppy. The dog licked his face. “He lost a lot of blood,” Hugh said. “He won’t be walking for a bit.” “I’ll carry him,” Sharif said. His eyes shone, catching the light. “We’re only a mile in. Take him back and catch up,” Hugh told him. The werewolf turned smoothly and ran into the woods, silent like a shadow, the huge dog resting in his arms. Karen took the lead and they followed the scent trail deeper into the wood. If he never saw another rhododendron bush until his next life, it would be too soon, Hugh decided. The damn brush choked the spaces between trees and getting through it wasn’t exactly a cakewalk. They pushed their way through the latest patch. The endless rhododendron finally fell away. The woods stretched before them, the massive oaks and hemlocks rising like a forest of thick columns, cushioned in greenery. A shadow fluttered between the trees, trailing a smear of foul magic. An undead. The day was looking up. Hugh grinned and pulled his sword out. The undead dashed right and stopped. Another smear appeared on the left. Two. If it was Nez’s standard rapid reconnaissance party, there would be a third, each piloted by a separate navigator. Karen waited next to him, her anticipation almost a physical thing hovering in front of her. “Happy hunting,” Hugh said. She unbuckled her belt with the knife sheath on it, unzipped her boots, and gave a sharp tug to her shirt. It came open. She dropped it on the forest floor. Her pants followed. A brief flash of a nude human, then her body tore. New bones sprang up out of flesh, muscle spiraled up them, sheathing the next skeleton, skin clothed it, and dense grey fur burst from the new hair follicles. The female werewolf opened her monstrous jaws, her face neither wolf nor human, swiped her knife from her clothes, and sprinted into the woods to the left. Hugh started through the woods toward the foul magic staining the leaves. The magic receded. Run, run, little vampire. Another vampire to the far right, closing in fast. The front bloodsucker played bait, while the one on the left would close in from the flank and try to jump him. They didn’t realize he could feel them. This wasn’t the Golden Legion. The Masters of the Dead would’ve just met him two on one. These were likely journeymen, piloting younger vampires. The undead were damn expensive. Didn’t want to risk the budget, did you, cheapskate? It will cost you. He ran through the forest as fast as the terrain would let him. Tree trunks flew by. Let’s play.