Kate Daniels

EXCERPTS from "Iron and Magic" by Ilona Andrews 

“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 was idiotic.”
Volcanic fire powered by magic would have melted stone.  He should’ve been instantly burned to a crisp. “How did you survive?”
“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 strength back.”
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.
Fucking shit.
“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.
Lamar smiled.
“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.”

“Wake up!”
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.
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.
“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?”
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.”
“Ten miles?”
“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.
“Human, animal?”
“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.
New. Hugh smiled.  “Well, that’s interesting, isn’t it?”
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?”
Sam blinked.
“Go look.”
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.
“It’s possible.”
“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.


 September 20th 2016
"Mercenary Kate Daniels knows all too well that magic in post-Shift Atlanta is a dangerous business. But nothing she’s faced could have prepared her for this…

Kate and the former Beast Lord Curran Lennart are finally making their relationship official. But there are some steep obstacles standing in the way of their walk to the altar…

Kate’s father, Roland, has kidnapped the demigod Saiman and is slowly bleeding him dry in his never-ending bid for power. A Witch Oracle has predicted that if Kate marries the man she loves, Atlanta will burn and she will lose him forever. And the only person Kate can ask for help is long dead.

The odds are impossible. The future is grim. But Kate Daniels has never been one to play by the rules…"

Chapter 1

The skull glared at me out of empty eye sockets.  Odd runes marked its forehead, carved into the yellowed bone and filled with black ink.  Its thick bottom jaw supported a row of conical fangs, long and sharp like the teeth of a crocodile.  The skull sat on top of an old STOP sign.  Someone had painted the surface of the hexagon white and written KEEP OUT across it in large jagged letters.  A reddish-brown splatter stained the bottom edge, looking suspiciously like dry blood. I leaned closer.  Yep, blood. Some hair, too. Human hair.
Curran frowned at the sign.  “Do you think he’s trying to tell us something?”
“I don’t know.  He’s being so subtle about it.”
I looked past the sign.  About a hundred yards back, a large two story house waited.  It was clearly built post-Shift, out of solid timber and brown stone laid by hand to ensure it would survive the magic waves. But instead of the usual simple square or rectangular box of most post-Shift buildings, this house had all the pre-Shift bells and whistles of a modern prairie home: rows of big windows, sweeping horizontal lines, and a spacious layout.  Except prairie style homes usually had long flat roofs and little ornamentation, while this place sported pitched roofs with elaborate carved gables, beautiful barge boards, and ornate wooden windows.
“It’s like someone took a Russian log cabin and a pre-Shift contemporary house, stuck them into a blender, and dumped it over there.”
Curran frowned. “It’s his… what do you call it?  Terem.”
“A terem is where Russian princesses lived.”
Between us and the house lay a field of black dirt.  It looked soft and powdery, like potting soil or a freshly plowed field.  A path of rickety old boards, half rotten and splitting, curved through the dirt to the front door.  I didn’t have a good feeling about that dirt.
We’d tried to circle the house and ran into a thick thorn-studded natural fence, formed by wild rose bushes, blackberry brambles, and trees.  The fence was twelve feet tall and when Curran tried to jump high enough to see over it, the thorny vines snapped out like lassos and made a heroic effort to pull him in.  After I helped him pick the needles out of his hands, we decided a frontal assault was the better option.
“No animal tracks on the dirt,” I said.
“No animal scents either,” Curran said.  “There are scent trails all around us through the woods, but none here.”
“That’s why he has giant windows and no grates on them.  Nothing can get close to the house.”
“It’s that, or he just doesn’t care.  Why the hell doesn’t he answer his phone?”
Who knew why the priest of the god of All Evil and Darkness did anything?
I picked up a small rock, tossed it into the dirt, and braced myself.  Nothing.  No toothy jaws exploded through the soil, no magic fire, no earth-shattering kaboom.  The rock just sat there.
We could come back later, when the magic was down.  That would be the sensible thing to do.  However, we had driven ten miles through lousy traffic in the punishing heat of Georgia’s summer and then hiked another mile through the woods to get here, and our deadline was fast approaching.  One way or another, I was getting into that house.
I put my foot onto the first board.  It sank a little under my weight, but held.  Step.  Another step.  Still holding.
I tiptoed across the boards, Curran right behind me.  Think sneaky thoughts.
The dirt shivered.
Two more steps.
A mound formed to the left of us, the dirt shifting like waves of some jet-black sea.
“To the left,” I murmured.
“I see it.”
Long serpentine bone spines slid through the soil, the fins of a sea serpent gliding just under the surface of a midnight-black powdery ocean.
We sprinted to the door.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a cloud of loose soil burst to the left.  A scorpion the size of a pony shot out and scrambled after us.
That’s all we needed.  If we killed his pet scorpion, we would never hear the end of it.
I ran up the porch and pounded on the door. “Roman!”
Behind me bone tentacles exploded from the soil and wound about Curran’s body.  He locked his hands on the bones and strained, pulling them apart.  Bone crunched, and the left tentacle flailed, torn.
“Roman!”  Damn it all to hell.
A bone tentacle grabbed me and yanked me back and up, dangling me six feet off the ground.  The scorpion dashed forward, its barb poised for the kill.
The door swung open, revealing Roman.  He wore a T-shirt and plaid pajamas and his dark hair, shaved on the sides into a long horse-like mane, stuck out on the left side of his head.  He looked like he’d been sleeping.
“What’s all this?”
Everything stopped.
Roman squinted at me.  “What are you guys doing here?”
“We had to come here because you don’t answer your damn phone.” Curran’s voice had that icy quality that said his patience was at an end.
“I didn’t answer it because I unplugged it.”
Roman waved his hand.  The scorpion retreated.  The tentacles gently set me down and slithered back into the ground.
“You would unplug yours too, if you were related to my family. My parents are fighting again and they’re trying to make me choose sides.  I told them they could talk to me when they start acting like responsible adults.”
Fat chance of that.  Roman’s father Grigorii was the head black volhv in the city.  His mother Evdokia was one third of the Witch Oracle.  When they had fights, things didn’t boil over, they exploded.  Literally.
“So far I’ve avoided both of them, so I’m enjoying peace and quiet. Come in.”
He held the door open.  I walked past him into a large living room.  Golden wooden floors, huge fire place, thirty foot ceilings, and soft furniture.  Book shelves lined the far wall, crammed to the brink.  The place looked downright cozy.
Curran walked in behind me and took in the living room.  His thick eyebrows rose.
“What?” Roman asked.
“No altar?” Curran asked.  “No bloody knives and frightened virgins?”
“No sacrificial pit ringed with skulls?” I asked.“Ha. Ha.” Roman rolled his eyes.  “Never heard that one before.  I keep the virgins chained up in the basement.  Do you want some coffee?”
I shook my head.
“Yes,” Curran said.
“No, put cream in it.”
“Good man.  Only two kinds of people drink their coffee black: cops and serial killers. Sit, sit.”
I sat on the sofa and almost sank into it.  I’d need help getting up.  Curran sprawled next to me.
“This is nice,” he said.
“We should get one for the living room.”
“We’d get blood on it.”
Curran shrugged.  “So?”
Roman appeared with two mugs, one pitch-black and the other clearly half-filled with cream.  He gave the lighter mug to Curran.
“Drinking yours black, I see,” I told him.
He shrugged.  “Eh…  Goes with the job.  So what can I do for you?”
“We’re getting married,” I said.
“I know.  Congratulations.  On Ivan Kupala night. I don’t know if that’s good or bad, but it’s brave.”
Ivan Kupala’s night was the time of wild magic in Slavic folklore.  The ancient Russians believed that on that date the boundaries between the worlds blurred.  In our case, it meant a really strong magic wave.  Odd things happened on Ivan Kupala’s night.  Given a choice, I would’ve picked a different day, but Curran had set the date.  To him it was the last day of werewolf summer, a shapeshifter holiday and a perfect day for our wedding. I told him I would marry him, and if he wanted to get married on Ivan Kupala night, then we’d get married on Ivan Kupala night.  After moving the date a dozen times, that was the least I could do.
“So did you come to invite me?” Roman asked.
“Yes,” Curran said.  “We’d like you to officiate.”
“I’m sorry?”
“We’d like you to marry us,” I said.
Roman’s eyes went wide.  He pointed to himself. “Me?”
“Yes,” Curran said.
“Marry you?”
“You do know what I do, right?”
“Yes,” I said.  “You’re Chernobog’s priest.”
“Chernobog” literally meant Black God, who was also known by other fun names like Black Serpent, Lord of Darkness, God of freezing cold, destruction, evil, and death.  Some ancient Slavs divided their pantheon into opposing forces of light and dark.  These forces existed in a balance, and according to that view, Chernobog was a necessary evil.  Somebody had to be his priest and Roman had ended up with the job.  According to him, it was the family business.
Roman leaned forward, his dark eyes intense.  “You sure about this?”
“Yes,” Curran said.
“Not going to change your mind?”
What was it with the twenty questions?  “Will you do it or not?”
“Of course, I’ll do it.” Roman jumped off the couch. “Ha!  Nobody ever asks me to marry them. They always go to Nikolai, my cousin—Vasiliy’s oldest son.”
Roman had a vast family tree, but I remembered Vasiliy, his uncle.  Vasiliy was a priest of Belobog, Chernobog’s brother and exact opposite.  He was also very proud of his children, especially Nikolai, and bragged about them every chance he got.
Roman ducked behind the couch and emerged with a phone.
“When some supernatural filth tries to carry off the children, call Roman so he can wade through blood and sewage to rescue them, but when it’s something nice like a wedding or a naming, oh no, we can’t have Chernobog’s volhv involved.  It’s bad luck. Get Nikolai. When he finds out who I’m going to marry, he’ll have an aneurysm. His head will explode.  Good that he’s a doctor, maybe he can treat himself.”
He plugged the phone into the outlet.
It rang.
Roman stared at it as if it were a viper.
The phone rang again.
He unplugged it.  “There.”
“It can’t be that bad,” I told him.
“Oh it’s bad.”  Roman nodded.  “My Dad refused to help my second sister buy a house, because he doesn’t like her boyfriend.  My Mother called him and it went badly. She cursed him.  Every time he urinates, the stream arches up and over.”
Curran winced.
“You hungry? Do you want something to eat?” Roman wagged his eyebrows.  “I have smoked brisket.”
Curran’s eyes lit up.  “Moist or dry?”
“Moist. What am I, a heathen?”
Technically, he was a heathen.
“We can’t,” I told him. “We have to leave.  We have Conclave tonight.”
Curran grimaced.
“I didn’t know you still go to that,” Roman said.
“Ghastek outed her,” Curran said.
The Conclave began as a monthly meeting between the People and the Pack.  As the two largest supernatural factions in the city, they often came into conflict and at some point it was decided that talking and resolving small problems was preferable to being on the brink of a bloodbath every five minutes.  Over the years, the Conclave evolved into a meeting where the powerful of Atlanta came together to discuss business.  We had attended plenty of Conclaves when Curran was Beastlord, but once he retired, I thought our tortures were over.  Yeah, not so fast.
“Back in March Roland’s crews started harassing the teamsters,” I said.
“In the city?” Roman raised his eyebrows.
“No.”  I had claimed the city of Atlanta to save it from my father, assuming responsibility for it. My father and I existed in a state of uneasy peace, and so far he hadn’t openly breached it. “They would do it five, six miles outside of the land I claimed. The teamsters would be driving their wagons or trucks, and suddenly there would be twenty armed people blocking the road and asking them where they were going and why.  It made the union nervous, so a teamster rep came to the Conclave and asked what anyone would be doing about that.”
“Why not just go to the Order?” Roman said.  “That’s what they do.”
“The Order and the union couldn’t come to an agreement,” Curran said.
The Order of the Knights of Merciful Aid offered that aid under some conditions, not the least of which was that once they took a job, they finished it on their terms and their clients didn’t always like the outcome.
“So the teamster rep asked the People point blank to stop harassing their convoys,” Curran said, “And Ghastek told him that Kate was the only person capable of making it happen.”
“Did you?”
“I did,” I said. “And now I have to go to the Conclave meetings.”
“I’m there as a supportive spouse-to-be.”  Curran grinned, flashing white teeth.
“So why did your father mess with the convoys?” Roland asked.
“No reason.  He does it to aggravate me.  He’s an immortal wizard with a megalomaniac complex.  He doesn’t understand words like no and boundaries.  It bugs him that I have this land.  He just can’t let it go, so he sits on my border and pokes it.  He tried to build a tower on the edge of Atlanta.  I made him move it, so now he’s building himself ‘a small residence’ about five miles out.”
“How small?” Roman asked.
“About thirty thousand square feet,” Curran said.
Roman whistled, then knocked on the wooden table and spat over his shoulder three times.
Curran looked at me.
“Whistling in the house is bad luck,” I explained.
“You’ll whistle all your money away,” Roman said.  “Thirty thousand square feet, huh?”
“Give or take. He keeps screwing with her,” Curran said.  “His construction crews obstruct the Pack hunting grounds outside Atlanta.  His soldiers nag the small settlements outside, trying to get people to sell their land to him.”
My father was slowly driving me insane.  He’d cross into my territory when the magic was up, so I would feel his presence, then leave before I could get there to bust him. The first few times he had done it, I rode out, dreading a war, but there was never anyone to fight. Sometimes I woke up in the middle of the night because I’d feel him enter my land, and then I’d lay there gritting my teeth and fighting with myself to keep from grabbing my sword and running out of the house to hunt him down.
“Don’t forget the monsters,” I said.  “They keep spawning just outside and then raid Atlanta.”
“Most of the time we can’t tie it back to him,” Curran said. “When we can, she calls him on it.  He apologizes and makes generous reparations.”
“And then we all somehow end up eating in some seafood joint, where he orders the whole menu and the waiters serve us glassy-eyed,” I said.
Curran finished his coffee in one gulp. “Last week a flock of harpies attacked Druid Hills.  It took the Guild six hours to put them down. One merc ended up in the hospital with some kind of acute magical rabies.”
“Well, at least it’s rabies,” Roman said.  “They carry leprosy, too.”
“I called Roland about it,” I said. “He said ‘Who knows why harpies do anything, Blossom?’  And then he told me he had two tickets to see Aisha sing and one of them had my name on it.”
“Parents,” Roman heaved a sigh.  “Can’t live with them.  Can’t get away from them.  When you try to move, they buy a house in your new neighborhood.”
“That’s one thing about having both of your parents murdered,” Curran said. “I don’t have parent problems.”
Roman and I looked at him.
“We really do have to go,” I said.
“Thanks for the coffee.” Curran put his empty mug on the table.
“No trouble,” Roman said.  “I’ll get started on this wedding thing.”
“We really appreciate it,” I said.
“Oh no, no.  My pleasure.”
We got up, walked to the door, and I swung it open.  A black raven flew past me and landed on the back of the couch.
Roman slapped his hand over his face.
“There you are,” the raven said in Evdokia’s voice.  “Ungrateful son.”
“Here we go…” Roman muttered.
“Eighteen hours in labor and that’s what I get. He can’t even pick up the phone to talk to his own mother.”
“Mother, can’t you see I have people here?”
“I bet if their mothers called them, they would pick up.”
That would be a neat trick for both of us.  Sadly, dead mothers didn’t come back to life, even in post-Shift Atlanta.
“Nice to see you, Roman.” I grabbed Curran by the hand.
The bird swiveled toward me.  “Katya!”
Oh no.
“Don’t you leave.  I need to talk to you.”
“Got to go, bye!”
I jumped out of the house.  Curran was only half a second behind me and he slapped the door closed.  I sped down the wooden path before Evdokia decided to track me down.
“Are you actually running away from Evdokia?”
“Yes, I am.” The witches weren’t exactly pleased with me.  They had trusted me to protect Atlanta and its covens and I had claimed the city instead.
“Maybe we could skip the Conclave tonight,” Curran said.
“We can’t.”
“Because it’s Mahon’s turn to attend.”
The Bear of Atlanta was brave and powerful and the closest thing to a father Curran had.  He also had an uncanny ability to alienate everyone in the room and then have to defend himself when a brawl broke out. He took self-defense seriously.  Sometimes there was no building left standing when he was done.
“Jim will be there,” Curran said.
“Nope.” The Pack rotated Conclave duty between the alphas, so if something happened at the Conclave, the leadership of the Pack as a whole wouldn’t be wiped out.  “Jim was at the last one.  You would know this if you hadn’t skipped it to go fight that thing in the sewers.  It will be Raphael and Andrea, Desandra, and your father.  Unsupervised.”
Curran swore.  “What the hell is Jim thinking with that line up?”
“Serves you right for pretending you don’t have parent problems.”
He growled something under his breath.
Mahon and I didn’t always see eye to eye.  He’d thought I was the reason Curran left the Pack and told me so, but now he’d come to terms with it.  We both loved Curran so we had to deal with each other and we made the best of it.  Although lately Mahon has been nice to me.  It was probably a trap.
“We make it through the Conclave and then we can go home, drink coffee, and eat the apple pie I made last night,” I said.  “It will be glorious.”
He put his arm around me. “It’s a dinner.”
“Don’t say it.”
“I mean it! I want a nice quiet night.”
“… bad could it be?”
“Now you ruined it.  If a burning giant busts through a window while we’re at Conclave and tries to squish people, I will so punch you in the arm.”
He laughed and we jogged down the winding forest path to our car.

Bernard’s was always full but never crowded.  Housed in a massive English style mansion in the affluent northern neighborhood, Bernard’s restaurant was one of those places where you had to make a reservation two weeks in advance, minimum.  The food was beautiful and expensive, the portions tiny—and the patrons were the real draw.  Men in thousand dollar suits and women in glittering dresses with shiny rocks on their necks and wrists mingled and had polite conversation in hushed voices, while sipping wine and expensive liquor.
Curran and I walked into Bernard’s in our work clothes: worn jeans, T-shirts, and boots.  I would’ve preferred my sword, too, but Bernard’s had a strict no weapons policy so Sarrat had to wait in the car.
People stared as we walked to the conference room.  People always stared.  Whispers floated.
“Is that her?”
“She doesn’t look like …”
Curran turned toward the sound, his eyes iced over, his expression flat.  The whispers died.
We entered the conference room, where a single long table had been set.  The Pack was already there.  Mahon sat in the center, Raphael on his right, Desandra two seats down on his left.  Mahon saw us and grinned, stroking his black beard, shot through with silver.  When you saw the Bear of Atlanta, one word immediately sprang to mind: big. Tall, with massive shoulders, barrel chested and broad but not fat, Mahon telegraphed strength and raw physical power.  While Curran held the coiled promise of explosive violence, Mahon looked like if the roof suddenly caved in, he would catch it, grunt, and hold it up.
Next to him, Raphael couldn’t be more different.  Lean, tall, and dark, with piercing blue eyes, the alpha of the Bouda Clan wasn’t traditionally handsome, but there was something about his face that made women obsess.  They looked at him and thought of sex. Then they looked at his better half and decided that he wasn’t worth dying over.  Especially lately, because Andrea was nine months pregnant and communicating mostly in snarls.  And she wasn’t at the table.
Desandra, beautiful, blonde, and built like a female prize fighter, poked at some painstaking arrangement of flowers and sliced meats on her plate, saluted us with a fork, and went back to poking.
Curran sat next to Mahon.  I took the chair between him and Desandra and leaned forward, so I could see Raphael.  “Where is Andrea?”
“In the Keep,” he said. “Doolittle wants to keep an eye on her.”
“Is everything okay?”  She was due any day.
“It’s fine,” Raphael said. “Doolittle is just hovering.”
And the Pack’s medmage was probably the only one who could force Andrea to comply.
“Boy.” Mahon clapped his hand on Curran’s shoulder. His whole face was glowing. Curran grinned back. It almost made the Conclave worth it.
“Old man,” Curran said.
“You’re looking thinner.  Trimming down for the wedding? Or she not feeding you enough?”
“He eats what he kills,” I said. “I can’t help it that he’s a lousy hunter.”
Mahon chuckled.
“I’ve been busy,” Curran said.  “The Guild takes a lot of work.  Outside of the Keep, it’s not all feasts and honey muffins.  You should try it sometime.  You’re getting a gut and winter isn’t coming for six months.”
“Oh,” Mahon turned, rummaged in the bag he hung on the chair, and pulled out a large rectangular Tupperware container. “Martha sent these for you since you never come to the house.”
Curran popped the lid off.  Six perfect golden muffins.  The aroma of honey and vanilla floated around the table.  Desandra came to life like a winter wolf who heard a bunny nearby.
Curran took one muffin, passed it to me, and bit into a second one.  “We came to your house just last week.”
“I was out on clan business.  That doesn’t count.”
I bit into the muffin and, for the five seconds it took me to chew, went to heaven.
The People filed into the room.  Ghastek was in the lead, tall, painfully thin and made even thinner by the dark suit he wore. Rowena walked next to him, shockingly stunning as always.  Today she wore a whiskey-colored cocktail dress that hugged her generous breasts and hips, while accentuating her narrow waist.  Her waterfall of red hair was plaited into a very wide braid and twisted into a knot on the side.  I wouldn’t even know how to start that hairdo.
I missed my long hair. It was just past my shoulders now and there wasn’t much I could do with it, besides letting it loose or pulling it back into a pony tail.
Curran leaned toward me.  “Why didn’t those two ever get together?”
“I have no idea.  Maybe they did and we just don’t know?”
“No, I had him under surveillance for years. He never came out of her house and she never came out of his.”
The People took the seats across from us.
“Any pressing business?” Ghastek asked.
Mahon pulled out a piece of lined paper.
Half an hour later both the People and the Pack ran out of things to discuss. Nothing major had happened and the budding dispute over a real estate office on the border between the Pack and the People was quickly resolved.
Wine was served, followed by elaborate desserts that had absolutely nothing on Martha’s honey muffins.  It was actually kind of nice, just sitting there, sipping the sweet wine.  I never thought I would miss the Pack, but I did, a little.  I missed the big meals and the closeness.
“Congratulations on the upcoming wedding,” Ghastek said.
“Thank you,” I said.
Technically, Ghastek and the entire Atlanta office of the People belonged to my father and he had been quietly reinforcing them.  Two new Masters of the Dead had been assigned to Ghastek, bringing the total count of the Masters of the Dead to eight.  Several new journeymen had joined the Casino as well.  I made it a habit to drive by it once in a while and every time I did, I felt more vampires within the white textured walls of the palace than I did before.  Ghastek was a dagger poised at my back.  So far that dagger remained sheathed and perfectly cordial, but I never forgot where his allegiance lay.
“Ghastek, why haven’t you married?” I asked.
He gave me a thin-lipped smile.  “Because if I were to get married, I would want to have a family.  To me, marriage means children.”
“So what’s the problem? Shooting blanks?” Desandra asked.
Kill me.
“No,” Ghastek told her.  “In case you haven’t noticed, this city is under siege.  It would be irresponsible to bring a child into the world when you can’t keep him or her safe.”
“So move,” Desandra said.
“There is no place on this planet that is safe from her father,” Rowena said.  “As long as he lives…”
Ghastek put his long fingers on her hand.  Rowena caught herself.  “…as long as he lives, we serve at his pleasure.  Our lives are not our own.”
Nick Feldman walked through the door.  The Order of Merciful Aid typically didn’t attend the Conclave.  Not good.  Not good at all.
“Here comes the Knight-Protector,” Raphael warned quietly.
Everyone looked at Nick. He stopped by the table.  When I first met Nick, he’d looked like a filthy bum.  When I saw him again, he was working undercover for Hugh d’Ambray, my father’s warlord, and he’d looked like one of Hugh’s inner circle: hard, fast, without any weakness, like a weapon honed to unbreakable toughness.  Now he was somewhere in between.  Still without weakness, short light brown hair, lead eyes, and a kind of quiet menace that set me on edge.
Nick hated me.  His father had been in love with my mother, and that love broke the marriage of Nick’s parents.  That wasn’t the main reason for his hatred, although it helped.  Nick detested me because he got close and personal with my father.  He’d seen with his own eyes how Roland operated and he thought I would turn out the same way.  I was happy to disappoint him.
“Enjoying dinner like one big happy family?” he said.
“The Knight-Protector honors us with his presence,” Rowena said.
“Hey handsome,” Desandra winked at him.  “Remember me?”
They had gotten into it before and nearly killed each other.  Nick didn’t look at her, but a small muscle in the corner of his left eye jerked.  He remembered, alright.
“What can we do for you?” Curran asked.
“For me, nothing.”  Nick was looking at me.
“Just spit it out,” I told him.
He tossed a handful of pieces of paper on the table.  They spread out as they fell.  Photographs.  My father’s stone “residence.”  Soldiers in black dragging a large body between them toward the gates, nude from the waist up, purple and red bruises covering the snow-white skin.  A black bag hid the head.  Another shot, showing the person’s legs, the feet mangled like hamburger meat.  Whoever it was, he or she were too large to be a normal human.
Raphael picked up a photograph next to him and carefully placed it in front of me.
The hood was off.  A scraggly mane of bluish hair hung down around the prisoner’s shoulders.  His face was raw, but I still recognized it.  Saiman in his natural form.
My father had kidnapped Saiman.
Rage boiled inside me, instant and scalding hot.
I had tolerated all of my father’s bullshit, but kidnapping my people, this was going too far.
“When did this happen?” Curran asked, his voice calm.
“Yesterday evening.”
Saiman used to be my go-to expert for all things weird and magical, but the last time I tried to hire him, he told me that sooner or later my father would murder me and he wasn’t stupid enough to play for the losing team.  I knew Saiman was the center of his own Universe, but it still surprised me. I had saved him more than once.  I didn’t expect friendship – that was beyond him—but I had expected some loyalty.  One thing I knew for sure: Saiman would not work with my father.  Roland terrified him.  One hint of interest from him, and Saiman would run and never look back.
I wished I could reach across the distance and drop a burning space rock on my father’s house.
Nick was looking at me.  Some part of him must’ve enjoyed this.  He wasn’t smiling, but I saw it in his eyes.
I forced my voice to sound even.  “Is the Order taking the case?”
“No.  The Order must be petitioned, and no petition has been filed.”
“Shouldn’t this fall under the citizen in danger provision?” I asked.  “An agent of the Order took these pictures.  They saw that Saiman was in immediate danger, yet they did nothing.”
“We are doing something,” Nick said. “I’m notifying you.”
“Your compassion is staggering,” Ghastek said.
Nick turned his lead gaze to the Master of the Dead.  “Considering the involved citizen’s origins and his long and creative criminal record, his rescue is a low priority.  In fact, the city is safer without him in it.”
“Then why tell me at all?” I asked.
“Because I enjoy watching you and your father rip into each other like two feral cats thrown into the same bag.  If one of you kills the other, the world will be better off.”  Nick smiled.  “Give him hell, Sharrim.”
Mahon pounded his fist on the table.  The wood thudded like a drum.  “You will keep a civil tongue in your mouth when you speak to my daughter in law!”
“Your daughter in law is an abomination,” Nick told him.
Mahon surged up.  Raphael grabbed his right arm. Curran grabbed his left.
“That’s right, hold back the rabid bear,” Nick said. “This is why the world treats you like animals.”
I jumped onto the table, ran over to Mahon, and hugged him, adding my weight to Raphael’s.  “It’s okay.  He runs his mouth because he can’t do anything else.”
Nick turned around and walked out of the room.
Curran strained, flexing.  “Sit down, old man.  Sit down.”
Finally, Mahon dropped back into his seat.  “That fucking prick.”
Raphael collapsed into his chair.
I sat on the table between the plates.  Bernard’s manager would have a cow, but I didn’t care.  Holding Mahon back took everything I had.
Ghastek and Rowena stared at me.
“Did you know?” I asked.
Ghastek shook his head.  “They don’t notify us of what he does.”
“What are you going to do?” Desandra asked.
“We’ll have to go and get him,” I said.  I’d rather eat broken glass.
“The degenerate?” Raphael asked. “Why not just leave him be?”
“Because Roland can’t take people out of the city whenever he wants to,” Curran said.  His face was dark.  “And that asshole knew that when he brought the pictures.”
“You should’ve let me twist his head off,” Mahon said. “You can’t let people insult your wife, Curran. One day you’ll have to choose diplomacy or your spouse.  I’m telling you now, it’s got to be your wife.  Diplomacy doesn’t care if you live or die.  Your wife does.” 


“Here is how we’re going to play this,” Curran said.  “I’ll swing by the Guild and pick up my mercs. Then we’ll wait just inside the boundary.  If you aren’t back within the two hours, I’ll come to get you.”
“I’ll be back,” I told him.
Gold rolled over his irises.  “Yes,” he said.  “You will.  I promise you that.”

“This is just typical.” Roman raised his eyes upward. “One time I try to do something good, like join two people who are long overdue in a holy matrimony. One time! And it all turns to hell, doomsday prophecies, and death. I’ve served you for ten years. Would it kill you to have my back one damn time?”

“Yes, of course, make it all about you.” Evdokia sighed.

“Wait, you’re marrying them?” Sienna asked.

Maria chortled. “He’ll anoint them in blood. Should’ve asked Vasiliy.”

Evdokia turned to her. “There is nothing wrong with my son marrying them. It will be the best wedding and he will be the best priest.

Maria opened her mouth. “You best be careful what you say next,” Evdokia said.

“What if I don’t marry him?”
“It’s worse,” Sienna said.
“How do you know?”
“Because I looked into your future."
“Is there are any version of my future that doesn’t end that way?”
“No,” Sienna said. “I’m so sorry.” 

Seven people stood at the end of the long bridge, five side by side, two behind them.  All wore black and purple.  Sahanu.
“Oooh, now that’s a uniform,” Roman said.  “Look at that.  Meant to inspire fear and dread.  Screams assassin.”
“Which is why they wouldn’t get anywhere within the range of their target,” Curran said.
They didn’t need to.  Their target was coming to them.
I pulled Sarrat out and walked out onto the bridge.  Below me vampire minds stirred but stayed clear.  I grasped one and pulled it to me as I walked.  One should be enough.
“You know who I am.”  My voice carried, bouncing off the massive walls.  “You know what I do.”
The vampire leaped onto the bridge ahead of me.  I made it dig its claws into its own throat and rip it out a moment before I crushed its mind.  Blood spilled onto the stones.
“My father thinks I won’t kill you out of compassion.  He’s wrong.”
I drew my left hand across Sarrat’s blade and let my blood fall into the puddle as I passed.  My magic dashed down the drops, fusing them into a solid core.  I pulled the vampire blood to me through it.  It surged up and formed a red sword in my left hand.
“Leave now and I will spare your life.”

Swift are sahanu;
Silent like the night,
Unstoppable like the wind,
Merciful they are,
For quick death
Rides their daggers.


A woman stepped out of the woods on the other side of the river, a gauzy dark purple scarf wrapped around her head, hiding the bottom half of her face.  She pulled it off slowly, and it hung from her shoulder.  She was about my size and my age, dark eyes, dark hair, Latin American features. Her hair, gathered into a high pony tail on her head and secured with leather cords, cascaded to her shoulders.  She wore a black coat, split in the center to allow quick movement and trimmed with deep purple, black pants, and soft black boots.  A black leather gorget shielded her neck, extending into a chest plate of supple black leather that covered her left breast.  The chest plate wouldn’t stop a sword thrust.  It wasn’t meant to.  It existed to provide her just enough protection if she miscalculated by half an inch when she avoided a cut, the graze of the opponent’s blade wouldn’t draw blood.  A katana hung from her belt.

The woman looked directly at me and walked to the bridge.

Ah.  I see.

Ascanio opened his mouth.  Derek raised his head, silencing him.

I strode through the grass toward the bridge, Sarrat in my hand.

We stepped onto the boards at the same time.

The woman stopped.  I did as well.  The river ran between us.

She bowed, keeping her eyes on my face.

“The scent,” Derek said behind me.

The scent he’d smelled in Roland’s castle and then again in the backyard.  She belonged to my father.

“I have no issue with you, Sharrim.  I’ve come for the head,”she said, her voice tinted with accent.

I pondered her.  My father wanted the head.  Why?  It was completely inert.  I felt no magic emanating from it.

“No,” Holland said.

I glanced over my shoulder.  He drew himself straight.  “That head is evidence in an ongoing investigation by Milton County.  It belongs to people of Milton County.”

I turned back to the woman. “You heard the deputy.”

“My orders are to secure the head,” she said.

There would be violence.  The air was ripe with it.

“You’ll have to go through me,” I told her.

“So be it.”

“Walk away,” I told her.

“I obey only one,” she said.

“My father isn’t worth your life.”

“If you kill me, I’ll be slain by Sharrim in battle.  If I kill you, I’ll be slain by Sharrum in his grief.  My entire life culminates here.  My passage to the afterlife is assured.  I’m at peace.”

“How about door #3?  Turn around and go to live a nice life somewhere else.”

“You do me a great honor, Sharrim. Defend yourself.”

Forty feet above us the door of the tower opened and my father stepped out onto the stone landing. Magic clung to him like a tattered cloak. He was reeling it in as fast as he could, but I still felt it. We’ve interrupted something.
“Father.” There I said it and didn’t choke on it.

"Roland recoiled. His eyes blazed. His magic shot out in a furious torrent, boiling like a thundercloud around him.
Screw it. I let go. My power burst out of me, matching his. The castle wall shuddered under us.
I glared at him. “You have no right. Have you ever wondered why you always have to burn and kill your way to power? Why nobody ever comes and says, ‘Please, mighty Nim’rud, lead us? ‘ It’s because your reign brings only pain and suffering. Nobody wants you in charge.”
His magic splayed out, shooting up. Wind tore at me, raging out of nowhere. The stones under us rattled. Several stone blocks slid out, tumbling over the edge. In the courtyard, people cringed."

"Christopher screamed and the world drowned in fear." 

“Is there anything else you want to tell me?” Curran asked.
“No. Is there anything you want to tell me?”
“One of the rooms in the castle had a creature in it,” Curran said.
“What kind of creature?”
“A large cat.” Curran said. “It glowed.”
“What happened to the large glowing cat?” Why did I have a feeling I wouldn’t like the answer?
“I killed it,” Curran said.
“Aha.” First, baby Ctulthu, then a glowing cat. Maybe Roland’s head would explode.
“It was a saber-toothed tiger,” Julie said. “It glowed with silver.”
Silver stood for divine magic. There was no telling what that saber-toothed tiger was or where my dad had gotten him.
“Snitch,” Derek said.
She waved him off. “He killed it and then he ate it.”
I looked at Curran. “You killed an animal god and then you ate him?”
“Maybe,” Curran said.
“What do you mean maybe?”
“I doubt it was a god.”
“It glowed with silver,” Julie said. “It was definitely worshipped.”
Oh boy.

Curran swerved to avoid a speed bump formed by the tree roots raising the asphalt. “I could worship a lamp. That doesn’t make it a god.”
“Why did you eat it?” I asked in a small voice.
“It felt right at the time.”
“He devoured it,” Julie said. “Completely. With bones.”
If it was some sort of divine animal and he ate it, there was no telling what the flesh or the magic would do to him. There would be consequences. There were always consequences.
“Do you feel any side effects?”
“Not any I want to talk about with them in the car.”
Oh boy. 

Eight hours of sleep felt like pure heaven. I woke up and lay on the bed for a long time, just happy to not move. Curran sprawled next to me. He’d come home after I went to bed. I must’ve been rattled more than I thought, because when he walked into the bedroom, I woke up, grabbed Sarrat, and made it whole two steps to him, before I realized what was happening, which earned me a round of applause and calls for an encore. Then he saw the scar and acted as if half of my face had been hacked off. He almost dragged me off to the Guild’s medmage, but I threatened to stab him and I must’ve been vigorous enough to reassure him I was in good health. Of all the people I could’ve decided to marry, I had to choose him. 

“Julie, where is he?”
“He went out to check on horses.”
“Really? He hates horses.”
Julie’s eyes sparkled. “He said it was very important for him to check that they were still there. And that he was also there and not here when you snapped.”

I hugged Curran, still holding REDACTED in an arm lock. “Love you, I’ll be back soon. Don’t let him drink any blood.”

“It’s a lovely day and we’re under siege.  People are trying to murder us.” Her eyes shone with excitement.  “Isn’t it marvelous?” -  Andrea

The window rolled down and Andrea stuck her blond head out.  “I’m free!  Free!”

Oh boy.  “Aren’t you supposed to be on bed rest?”  I could’ve sworn Raphael told me Doolittle confined her to bed.

“Screw that.  We’re going to lunch.”

“It’s past lunch time.”

“Then we’re going to dinch. Or lunner. Or whatever the hell early dinner late lunch stupid combo we can come up with.”

“Now isn’t…”

Andrea’s eyes blazed.   “Kate, I’m nine months pregnant and I’m hungry.  Get into the damn car.”

I got into the car and Andrea pealed out like a bat out of hell.

“We’re going to Pantheon.  We’re going to have gyros.” Her stomach was out so far, she must’ve moved the seat back, because she had to stretch to reach the wheel.

“The look of grim determination on your face is scary,” I told her.

“I’ve been cooped up in Keep’s infirmary for the past two weeks,” Andrea said.


She waved her hand.  “Because Doolittle is a worrywart.”

Crap.  “Andrea, does Doolittle know where you are?”


“You sure about that?”

“Absolutely.  I’ve let him know. Anyway, we are going to lunch!”


“To lunch!” She flashed her teeth at me.

I shut up and let her drive.

“Hugh outlived his usefulness. His life had been a series of uncomplicated tasks and eventually he became his work.”
And whose fault was that? “You plucked him from the street.  He was raised exactly the way you wanted him to be raised.”
“He had potential,” Roland said, his voice wistful.  “So much magic.  He was like a glowing jewel.  I melted it down and forged it into a sword.  You are right, it’s not truly his fault, but the fact remains – the world is becoming more complex, not less.  Some swords are meant to be forged only once.  It’s better to start fresh.”

“Julie, Hugh is one of the most lethal fighters I know. You’re nowhere near that. He would cut you down like grass.”
She raised her hand. I couldn’t see her magic but I felt pour out of her, unfurling like invisible wings. “Not anymore.”

I looked at Ascanio. “Where is the rest?”
He shrugged his shoulders, a picture of perfect innocence on his face.
“Julie saved it. I just work here. I have no idea why Blond Harpy does anything.”

“Where is Maggie?”
Christopher pulled a canvas bag from behind him. A black furry head poked out and looked at me with the saddest brown eyes ever to belong to a dog. Maggie was an eight-pound creature that was probably part Chihuahua and part dachshund. She was too long, too odd, and her black fur stuck out in wispy strands in strange places. She walked gingerly, always slightly awkward, and if she thought she was in trouble, she’d lift one of her paws and limp, pretending to be injured. Her greatest ambition in life was to lay on someone’s lap, preferably under a blanket.
After John Hopkins, Barabas told me he wasn’t giving up. I told him I wasn’t either. I came up with daily meditation. Barabas came up with Maggie.
The little dog looked at me, turned, and crawled back into the bag. Right.

Teddy Jo took another step forward.
Roman’s dark eyebrows furrowed. “Watch it, birdie, before I break those wings off. I already got one of you. I have no problem adding another.”

 from https://twitter.com/ilona_andrews



Magic Bites (Kate Daniels #1)