Read an Excerpt
I rode through the night-drenched streets of Atlanta on a mammoth donkey. The donkey’s name was Cuddles. She was ten feet tall, including the ears, and her black-and-white hide suggested she might have held up a Holstein cow in some dark alley and was now wearing her clothes. My own blood-spattered outfit suggested I’d had an interesting night. Most horses would’ve been nervous about letting a woman covered with that much blood on their back, but Cuddles didn’t seem to mind. Either it didn’t bother her or she was a pragmatist who knew where her carrots were coming from.
The city lay in front of me, deserted, quiet, and steeped in magic, unfurling its streets to the starlight like a moonlight flower. Magic ran deep through Atlanta tonight, like a current of some phantom river, slipping into the shadowy places and waking hungry things with needle-long teeth and glowing eyes. Anyone with a drop of common sense hid behind reinforced doors and barred windows after dark. Unfortunately for me, common sense was never among my virtues. As Cuddles quietly clopped her way down the streets, the sounds of her hoof beats unnaturally loud, the night shadows watched us and I watched them back. Let’s play who can be a better killer. My sword and I love this game.
None of the monsters took the bait. It might have been because of me, but most likely it was because one of them was moving parallel to my route. They smelled him, and they hid and hoped he would pass them by.
It was almost midnight. I’d had a long day. My back ached, my clothes smelled of fetid blood, and a hot shower sounded heavenly. I had made two apple pies last night, and I was pretty sure that at least one piece would be left for me. I could have it tonight with my tea before I went to bed...
An annoying spark of magic ignited in my mind. A vampire. Oh goody. The spark “buzzed” in my brain like an angry mosquito and moved closer. The Immortuus pathogen, the disease responsible for vampirism, killed the minds of its victims, leaving behind an empty shell driven by an all-consuming bloodlust. Left to its own devices, a vampire would hunt and slaughter, and when it ran out of things to kill, it would starve to death. This particular bloodsucker wasn’t free to rampage, because its blank mind was held in a telepathic grip by a necromancer. The necromancer, or navigator as they were called, sat in a room far away, directing the vampire with his will as if it were a remote-controlled car. The navigator heard what the vampire heard, saw what the vampire saw, and if the vampire opened its mouth, the navigator’s words would come out of it.
Meeting a bloodsucker this far south meant it belonged to the People, an odd hybrid of a corporation and a research facility, whose personnel dedicated themselves to the study of the undead and making money on the side. The People avoided me like the plague. Two months ago they had figured out that the man behind their organization, the nearly immortal wizard with godlike powers and legendary magic, happened to be my father. They had some difficulty with that development. So the vampire wasn’t for me.
Still...I knew most of the People’s patrol routes and this undead was definitely off-course. Where the hell was it going?
No. Not my circus, not my undead monkeys.
I felt the vampire make a ninety-degree turn, heading straight for me. Home, shower, apple pie. Maybe if I said it like a prayer, it would work. The distance between us shrank. Home, shower...
An undead leaped off the roof of the nearest two-story house and landed on the road next to me, gaunt, each shallow muscle visible under the thick hide, as if someone had crafted a human anatomy model out of steel wire and poured a paper-thin layer of rubber over it.
The undead unhinged its mouth and Ghastek ’s dry voice came out. “You’re difficult to find, Kate.”
Well, well. The new head of the People’s Atlanta office had come to see me personally. I’d curtsy but I was too tired to get off my donkey and the sword on my back would get in the way. “I live in the suburbs and come home almost every night. My business phone number is in the book.”
The vampire tilted its head, mimicking Ghastek ’s movements. “You’re still riding that monstrosity?”
“Feel free to stomp him,” I told Cuddles. “I’ll back you up.”
Cuddles ignored me and the vampire, defiantly clopping past it. The bloodsucker turned smoothly and fell into step next to me. “Where is your...significant other?”
“He’s around.” He was never too far. “Why, are you worried he’ll find out about this romantic rendezvous?”
The vampire froze for a second. “What?”
“You’re meeting me in secret on a lonely street in the middle of the night...”
Ghastek ’s voice was so sharp, if it were a knife, I would’ve been sliced to ribbons. “I find your attempts at humor greatly distressing.”
“I assure you, this is strictly business.”
“Sure it is, sweet cheeks.”
The vampire’s eyes went wide. In an armored room deep in the bowels of the People’s Casino, Ghastek was probably having a heart attack from the outrage.
“What are you doing out in my neck of the woods?”
“Technically, the entire city is your neck of the woods,” Ghastek said. “True.”
Two months ago my father had decided to dramatically claim Atlanta as his own domain. I tried to stop him in an equally dramatic fashion. He knew what he was doing, I didn’t, and I ended up accidentally claiming the city in his stead. I was still fuzzy on how exactly the claiming worked, but apparently it meant that I had assumed guardianship of the city and the safety of Atlanta was now my responsibility. In theory, the magic of the city was supposed to nourish me and make my job easier, but I had no idea how exactly that worked. So far I didn’t feel any different.
“But still, I heard you were promoted. Don’t you have flunkies to do your bidding?”
The vampire twisted his face into a hair-raising leer. Ghastek must’ve grimaced.
“I thought you would be happy,” I said. “You wanted to be the head honcho.”
“Yes, but now I have to deal with you. He spoke to me, personally.”
He said “he” with the kind of reverence that could only mean Roland, my father.
“He believes that you may hesitate to kill me because of our shared experiences,” Ghastek continued. “Which makes me uniquely qualified to lead the People in your territory.”
Showing how freaked out I was about having a territory would severely tarnish my City Guardian cred. “Aha.”
“I’m supposed to cooperate with you. So, in the spirit of cooperation, I’m informing you that our patrols have sighted a large group of ghouls moving toward the city.”
Ghouls were bad news. They followed the same general pattern of infection, incubation, and transformation as vampires and shapeshifters, but so far nobody had managed to figure out what actually turned them into ghouls. They were smart, supernaturally fast, and vicious, and they fed on human carrion. Unlike vampires, whom they somewhat resembled, ghouls retained some of their former personality and ability to reason, and they quickly figured out that the best way to get human carrion was to butcher a few people and leave the corpses to rot until they decomposed enough to be consumed. They traveled around in packs of three to five members and attacked isolated small settlements.
“How large is the group?” “Thirty plus,” Ghastek said.
That wasn’t a group. That was a damn horde. I had never heard of a ghoul pack that large.
“Which way are they coming?”
“The old Lawrenceville Highway. You have about half an hour before they enter Northlake. Best of luck.”
The vampire took off into the night.
A few decades ago, Northlake would have been only a few minutes away. Now a labyrinth of ruins lay between me and that part of the city. Our world suffered from magic waves. They began without warning a few decades ago in a magic-induced apocalypse called the Shift. When magic flooded our world, it took no prisoners. It smothered electricity, dropped planes out of the sky, and toppled tall buildings. It eroded asphalt off the roads and birthed monsters. Then, without warning, the magic would vanish again and all of our gadgets and guns once again worked.
The city had shrunk post-Shift, after the first magic wave caused catastrophic destruction. People sought safety in numbers, and most of the suburbs along the old Lawrenceville Highway stood abandoned. There were some isolated communities in Tucker, but people settling there knew what to expect from the magic-fueled wilderness and it would be difficult for a pack of ghouls to take them down. Why bother, when less than five miles down the road Northlake marked the outer edge of the city? It was a densely populated area, filled with suburban houses and bordered by a few watchtowers along a ten-foot fence topped with razor wire. The guards could handle a few ghouls, but with thirty coming in fast, they would be overrun. The ghouls would scale the fence in seconds, slaughter the tower guards, and turn the place into a bloodbath.
There would be no assistance from the authorities. By the time I found a working phone and convinced the Paranormal Activity Division that a pack of ghouls six times the typical size was moving toward Atlanta, Northlake would be an all-you-can-devour ghoul buffet.
Above me a huge dark shape dashed along the rooftops and leaped, clearing the gap between two buildings. The starlight caught it for a heart-stopping second, illuminating the powerfully muscled torso, four massive legs, and the dark gray mane. The hair on the back of my neck stood up. It was as if the night itself had opened its jaws and spat out a prehistoric creature, something born of human fear and hungry animal growls echoing in the dark. I only saw him for a moment, but the image imprinted itself in my mind as if chiseled in stone. My body instantly recognized that he was predator and I was prey. I’d known him for three years now, and the instinctual response still hit every single time.
The beast landed, turned north, and vanished into the night, heading toward Northlake.
Instead of running away as fast as I could like any sane person would do, I nudged Cuddles, hurrying her until she broke into a gallop. One doesn’t let her fiancé fight a horde of ghouls by himself. Some things were just not done.
The empty expanse of the Lawrenceville Highway spread before me. The road cut through a shallow hill here, and stone walls held back the slope on both sides. I parked myself at the mouth of the hill, just before it melted into a vast, completely flat field. As good a place as any to make a stand.
I stretched my neck slowly, one side, then the other. I’d left Cuddles tethered to a tree half a mile back. Ghouls normally would have no interest in her, but she smelled like me and one of them might try to rip her neck open just out of spite.
The moon rolled out of the clouds, illuminating the fields. The night sky was impossibly high, the stars like diamonds in its icy depth. A cold breeze came, tugging at my clothes and my braid. It was the beginning of March, and the onset of spring was sudden and warm, but at night winter still bared its fangs.
The last time I was this far from the city, I had been the Consort of the Pack, the largest shapeshifter organization in the South. That was behind me now. Thirty ghouls would be rough without backup. Lucky for me, I had the best backup in the city.
When I had claimed Atlanta, the claiming had created a boundary. I felt it fifty feet in front of me, an invisible line of demarcation. I should’ve gone to inspect the boundary sooner, but I’d been busy trying to separate myself from the Pack and setting up the new house and working my ass off, because eventually our savings would run out...But pretending that the claiming hadn’t happened did me no favors.
Something moved in the distance. I focused on it. The movement continued, the horizon rippling slightly. A few breaths and the shiver broke into individual shapes running in an odd loping gait, leaning on their arms like gorillas but never fully shifting into a quadrupedal run.
Wow, that’s a lot of ghouls.
Showtime. I reached for the sword on my back and pulled Sarrat out of its sheath. The opaque, almost white blade caught the weak moonlight. Single-handed, with a razor-sharp edge, the blade was a cross between a straight sword and a traditional saber, with a slight curve that made it excellent for both slashing and thrusting. Sarrat was fast, light, and flexible, and it was about to get a hell of a workout.
The distorted shapes kept coming. Knowing there were thirty ghouls was one thing. Seeing them gallop toward you was completely different. A spark of instinctual fear shot through me, turning the world sharper, and melted into calm awareness.
Thin tendrils of vapor rose from Sarrat’s surface in response. I turned the saber, warming up my wrist.
The ghoul horde drew closer. How the hell did I get myself into these things?
I walked toward them, sword in my hand, point down. I had few social skills, but intimidation I did well.
The ghouls saw me. The front ranks slowed, but the back rows were still running at full speed. The mass of ghouls compacted like a wave breaking against a rock and finally screeched to a halt just before the boundary. We stopped, them on one side of the invisible magic divide, me on the other.
They were lean and muscular, with disproportionately powerful arms and long, spadelike hands, each finger tipped by a short curved claw. Bony protrusions, like short knobby horns, thrust through their skin at random spots on their back and shoulders. The horns were a defensive mechanism. If someone tried to pull the ghoul out of its burrow, the horns would wedge against dirt. A werewolf armed with superhuman strength would have a difficult time plucking a ghoul out of the ground. I’d seen the horns grow as long as four inches, but most of the ones decorating this crowd barely reached half an inch. Their skin was dark gray on the chest, neck, and faces, the kind of gray that was most often found on military urban camouflage.
Small splotches of muddy brown dotted their backs and their shoulders. If not for the watery yellow glow of their irises, they would’ve blended into the road completely.
None of them were lame, starved, or weak. The odds weren’t in my favor. I had to think of a strategy and fast.
The ghouls peered at me with oddly slanted eyes, the inner corners dipping much lower than the outer ones.
I waited. The moment you start speaking, you become less scary, and I had no intention of being less scary. The ghouls were sentient, which meant they could feel fear, and I needed every bit of advantage I could scrounge up.
A large ghoul shouldered its way to the front of the pack. Well-fed, with a defined powerful body, he crouched in front of me. If he stood upright, he would be close to seven feet tall. At least two hundred pounds, all of it hard muscle and sharp claws. The brown pattern on his back was almost nonexistent. Instead, long alternating stripes of paler and darker gray slid down his flanks.
The ghoul rocked forward. His face touched the boundary and he pulled back and stared at me. He wasn’t sure what he was sensing, but he knew that the boundary and I were somehow connected.
Some ghouls were scavengers. They were harmless and sometimes even gainfully employed. We lived in an unsafe world. Too often bodies couldn’t be recovered because they were under debris or the scene was too grisly for the next of kin to identify the remains. Putting the bodies into a mass grave was a recipe for disaster. Human bodies emanated magic even after death and there was no telling what the next magic wave would do to that mass grave. Most often the remains were cremated, but occasionally the authorities would bring in ghouls to clean the site. It was cheaper and faster.
I’d bet my arm these ghouls weren’t licensed scavenge workers, but I had to be absolutely sure.
The ghoul stared at me. I gave him my best psychotic smile.
The ghoul blinked his yellowish eyes, tensed like a dog about to charge, and opened his mouth, stretching his lips in a slow deliberate grin. That’s right, show me your big teeth, pretty boy.
A row of thick sharp teeth decorated the front of his jaw. Toward the back, the teeth thinned out, becoming more bladelike, with serrated edges. Got you.
The ghoul unhinged his jaw. A rough raspy voice came out. “Who are you?”
“Turn around now and you’ll live.”
He clamped his mouth shut. Apparently this wasn’t the answer he’d expected. Kate Daniels, master of surprises. Don’t worry, I’m just getting started.
“We’re a licensed cleanup crew,” the leader ghoul said. “No.”
Half a mile behind the ghouls, a dark shape moved through the field, so silent, for a second I thought I was seeing things. My mind refused to accept that a creature that large could be so quiet. Hi, honey.
The ghouls didn’t notice him. They were conditioned to pay attention to human flesh and I was standing right in front of them, providing a nice convenient target.
The leader ghoul turned, displaying a tattoo on his left shoulder.
Location of license and license number. He thought I was born yesterday.
“We’re a peaceful group,” the ghoul continued.
“Sure you are. You’re just running into the city to borrow a cup of sugar and invite people to your church.”
“You’re interfering with official municipal business. This is discrimination.”
The dark shadow emerged onto the road and started toward us. I’d need to buy him some time to get within striking range.
I looked at the ghoul. “Do you know what is so special about ghouls? You have an unrivaled adaptability. Your bodies change to match their environment faster than ninety-nine percent of anything we’ve seen in nature.”
My favorite monster crept closer on huge paws.
I raised my saber and rested the opaque blade on my shoulder. Faint tendrils of vapor escaped from Sarrat’s surface. The sword sensed trouble and was eager for it.
“Let me tell you what I see. Your color has changed from brown to gray, because you no longer have to blend in with the dirt. Your stripes tell me you spend a lot of time moving through the forest. Your horns are short, because you no longer hide in your burrows.”
The ghouls shifted closer. Their eyes glowed brighter. They didn’t like where this was going.
“Your claws aren’t long and straight to help you dig. They are curved and sharp to rend flesh.”
The ghouls bared their teeth at me. They were a hair away from violence. I had to keep talking.
“Your pretty teeth have changed, too. They’re no longer narrow and serrated. They are thick, strong, and sharp. The kind of teeth you get when you need to hold struggling prey in your mouth. And your fancy tattoo is two years out of date. All ghouls’ licenses in Columbia now have the year tattooed under the license number.”
The ghouls had gone completely silent, their eyes like dozens of tiny shiny moons all focused on me. Just a few more seconds...
“Kill her,” another ghoul chimed in. “We have to hurry.”
“Kill her. He’s waiting,” a third voice chimed in.
“Kill her. Kill her.”
They seemed awfully desperate. Something weird was going on. “Who is waiting?” I asked.
“Shut up!” the leading ghoul snarled.
I leaned forward and gave the leader ghoul my hard stare. “You look plump. You’ve been raiding the countryside and growing fat from gorging yourself on the people you’ve murdered. I gave you a chance to leave. Now it’s too late. Pay attention to this moment. Look at the stars. Breathe in the cold air. This is your last night. These are the last breaths you take. I will kill every one of you.”
The leader ghoul snarled, dropping all pretense. “You and what army?” I began pulling magic to me. This would hurt. This always hurt. “That’s the great thing about werelions. You don’t need an army. You just need one.” The ghoul twisted his face. “You’re not a werelion, meat.”
“I’m not.” I nodded behind them. “He is.”
The leader ghoul spun around.
Two gold eyes stared at him from the darkness. The enormous lion like beast opened his mouth and roared. Until I met him, I had never heard an actual lion roar. It sounded like thunder. Deafening, ravenous heart stopping thunder that severed some vital link between logic and control of your body deep inside your brain. It was a blast of sound so powerful, I had seen hundreds of shapeshifters cringe when they heard it. A wolf howl heard in the middle of the night raised the hair on the back of your neck, but a lion’s roar punched through all of your training and reason straight to the secret place hidden deep inside that screamed at you to freeze.
The ghouls stopped, motionless.
I opened my mouth and spat a power word. “Osanda.” Kneel.
Power words came from a long-forgotten age, so ancient that they commanded raw magic. Few people knew about them and even fewer could use them, because to learn a power word, you had to own it. You made it yours or it killed you. I knew a handful of power words, far more than anyone else I’d met, but using even one came with a heavy price tag. For my father, the power words were a language, one he spoke fluidly and without repercussions. They didn’t hurt him, but I always paid a price.
The magic ripped out of me. I braced for the familiar twist of agony. The backlash bit at me, tearing through my insides, but this time something must’ve blunted its teeth, because it didn’t hurt nearly as much as I remembered.
The magic smashed into the petrified ghouls. Their knees and elbows crunched in unison and they crashed to the asphalt. It would buy me at least ten seconds. If the magic wave had been stronger, I would’ve broken their bones.
I swung my sword. Sarrat met a ghoul’s bony neck and sliced through cartilage and thick hide like butter. Before its dead body fell to the ground, I thrust my blade into the chest of the second ghoul and felt Sarrat’s tip pierce the tight ball of its heart.
The lion’s body boiled, snapping upright. Bones thrust upward; powerful muscle spiraled up the new skeleton. A blink and a new monster lunged forward, a nightmarish mix of man and lion, seven and a half feet tall, with steel-hard muscle sheathed in gray fur and curved, terrible claws. A ghoul leaped at him. He grabbed the creature by its throat and shook it, as if he were snapping a wet towel. A sickening snap echoed through the night and the ghoul went limp.
I carved the third ghoul into two separate pieces and sliced the fourth one’s throat.
The ghouls woke up. They swarmed us. The leonine beast swung his claws and disemboweled a ghoul with a precise swipe. Intestines rained onto the road. The bitter stench of ghoul blood mixed with the unmistakable sour reek of a gut wound singed my nostrils.
Claws ripped through my clothes, drawing agonizing scalding-hot lines across my back. You want to play? Fine. I needed a workout anyway.
My saber became a razor-sharp wall. It cut, sliced, and pierced, ripping flesh and hissing as the ghoul blood that washed it boiled from its magic. I moved fast, sidestepping claws and blocking teeth. Another fiery gash stung my back. A ghoul clamped onto my boot and I ripped my leg free and stomped his skull into the pavement. A welcome heat spread through me, turning my muscles flexible and pliant. The world turned crystal clear. Time stretched, helping me. The ghouls lunged, but I was faster. They raked at me with their claws, but my blade found them first. I savored it all, every second of the fight, every drop of blood flying past me, every moment of resistance when Sarrat caught my target on its edge.
This was what I was raised and trained for. For better or worse, I was a killer. This was my calling, and I made no excuses for it.
A ghoul loomed before me. I sliced it down in a classic overhand stroke. It fell. Nobody took its place. I pivoted on my toes, looking for a fight. To the left the werelion tossed a broken body to the ground and turned to me. A single ghoul hugged the ground, caught between us.
“Alive,” the werelion snarled.
Way ahead of you. Let’s find out who the mysterious “he” is. I started toward the ghoul, sword in hand.
It shivered, looked right, then left, looked at the werelion, then at me.
That’s right. You’re trapped and not going anywhere. If it ran, we would chase it down.
The ghoul reared, jerked its clawed hands to its throat, and sliced it open. Blood gushed. The ghoul gurgled and collapsed on the ground. The light went out of its eyes.
Well, that was a hell of a thing.
The lion monster opened his mouth and a human voice came out, his diction perfect. “Hey, baby.”
“Hey, honey.” I pulled a piece of cloth out of my pocket and carefully wiped down Sarrat’s blade.
Curran stepped over to me and put his arm around my shoulders, pulling me close. I leaned against him, feeling the hard muscle of his torso against my side. We surveyed the road strewn with broken bodies.
The adrenaline faded slowly. The colors turned less vivid. One by one the cuts and gashes made themselves known: my back burned, my left hip hurt too, and my left shoulder ached. I’d probably wake up with a spectacular bruise tomorrow.
We’d survived another one. We’d get to go home and keep on living. “What the hell was all this about?” Curran asked me.
“I have no idea. They don’t typically gather into large packs. The biggest marauder pack ever sighted had seven ghouls, and that was considered a fluke. They are solitary and territorial. They only band together for protection, but clearly someone was waiting for them. Do you think Ghastek is connected to this?”
Curran grimaced. “It’s not like him. Ghastek only moves when he has something to gain. Having us kill ghouls doesn’t help him in any way. He knows what we can do. He had to realize we’d go through them.”
Curran was right. Ghastek had to know we’d dispatch the ghouls. He wouldn’t have used us to do his dirty work either. For all of his faults, Ghastek was a premier navigator, a Master of the Dead, and he loved his job. If he wanted the ghouls dead, he would’ve sliced this group to pieces with a couple of vampires or he would’ve used this opportunity as a training exercise for his journeymen.
“This isn’t making any sense to me,” I said, pulling traces of my blood toward me. It slid and rolled in tiny drops, forming a small puddle on the pavement. I pushed it to the side, solidified it, and stomped on it. It shattered under my foot into inert powder. Blood retained its magic even when separated from the body. For as long as I could remember, I had to guard my blood because if it were examined, it would point to my father like an arrow. There was a time where I had to set any trace of my blood on fire, but now it obeyed me. I couldn’t decide if it made me a better fighter or just a worse abomination. “They seemed desperate. Driven, almost, as if they had some sort of goal to get to.”
“We’ll figure it out,” Curran told me. “It’s almost midnight. I say we go home, get cleaned up, and climb into bed.”
“Sounds like a plan.”
“Hey, is there any of that apple pie left?” Curran asked.
“I think so.”
“Oh good. Let’s go home, baby.”
Our home. It still hit me like a punch, even after months of us being together—he was right there, waiting for me. If something attacked me, he’d kill it. If I needed help, he would help me. He loved me and I loved him back. I was no longer alone.
We were walking to my donkey when he said, “Sweet cheeks?”
“I couldn’t help it. Ghastek ’s got a stick up his ass the size of a railroad track. Did you see the look on the vampire’s face? He looked constipated.”
Curran laughed. We found Cuddles and went home.
Our house sat on a short street in one of the newer subdivisions. In a previous life, the subdivision was part of Victoria Estates, an upper middle-class neighborhood, a quiet place with narrow streets and old towering trees. It was as close to living in the forest as one could get and still stay in the suburbs. Then the magic came, and the trees of Hahn Forest to the south and W. D. Thomson Park revolted. The same strange power of magic that gnawed skyscrapers to mere nubs nourished the trees, and they grew at unnatural speed, invading neighborhoods and swallowing them whole. Victoria Estates fell prey to the encroaching woods without a whimper of resistance. Most people moved.
About four years ago an enterprising developer decided to reclaim the space and cut a new kidney-bean shape out of the forest, building post-Shift houses with thick walls, barred windows, sturdy doors, and generous yards. Our street lay on the inside of the bean, closest to the woods, while two other roads spun out of it to the north and west in widening arches. Ours was a short street, only seven houses on the other side and five on ours, with our home in the middle.
As we turned onto our road, I stretched my neck to see the house. It was a big three-story beast, sitting on roughly five acres, all fenced in, with a stable and a pasture in the back. I loved every brick and board of that house. It belonged to me and Curran. It was our family home. I’d lived in an apartment before. I’d lived in some hellholes. I’d even lived in a fortress, but this was the first house in a long time where I felt completely at home. Every time I left it, I had a terrible suspicion that when I came back, it would disappear, collapse, or be burned to the ground. When I somehow managed to obtain something nice, the Universe usually taunted me with it just long enough for me to care and then smashed it to pieces.
I couldn’t see our home yet—the bend of the street was in the way. I resisted making Cuddles clop faster. She had had a tiring night.
Curran reached over and covered my hand with his clawed furry one. “One month left.”
Two months ago, on January 1, Curran and I officially stepped down as the Beast Lord and Consort of the Pack. One day we were in charge of a thousand and half shapeshifters and the next we weren’t. Technically we had stepped down a few days prior, but the official date was January 1, for convenience’ sake. We had ninety days to formally separate our finances and business interests from the Pack. If anyone decided they wanted to leave the Pack as part of our staff, they had to do it before that time ran out.
Today was March 1. Thirty days and we would be completely free. Formally, we remained part of the Pack, but we weren’t subject to their chain of command. We could no longer participate in governing the Pack in any capacity. For these ninety days, we couldn’t even visit the Keep, the huge fortress Curran had built during his reign as the Beast Lord that served as the Pack’s HQ, because our presence would undermine the authority of the new alpha couple as they tried to get established. After the separation period was over, we wouldn’t be turned away from the Keep, but it was understood we’d limit our time. Just the way I liked it.
Guilt bit at me. The Pack was Curran’s life. He’d ruled it since he had hammered it together from isolated shapeshifter packs when he was only fifteen. He was thirty-three now. He’d walked away from eighteen years of his life, because he loved me.
Last December, after my father and I had our little spat over Atlanta, he gave me a choice. Either I stepped down from my position of power in the Pack or he would attack the city. Tens of thousands of lives on one side, being the Consort on the other. I chose to walk away. We weren’t ready to fight Roland. People would die because of me, and in the end we would lose.
I couldn’t take the guilt, so I left the Pack to buy us time. Curran chose to be with me. The Pack wasn’t happy with his decision, but he didn’t care.
“Do you miss it?” I asked. “What, the Keep?”
Funny how he knew right away what I was asking. “Yes. Being the Beast Lord.”
“Not really,” Curran said. “I like this. Getting the job done and then going home. There is a finality to it. I can look back and say I’ve accomplished this much today. I like knowing nobody will knock on our door and drag me off to do some stupid shit. No more committees, no more petty rivalries, and no more weddings.”
The big maple in front of our house swung into view. It was intact. Maybe the house had survived as well.
“I don’t miss the Pack. I do miss making it work,” Curran said. “What do you mean?”
“It’s like a complicated machine. All of the clans and alphas and their problems. I miss adjusting it and seeing it work better. But I don’t miss the pressure.” He grinned, threatening the moon with his scary teeth. “You know what I like about not being the Beast Lord?”
“You mean besides us being able to eat when we want, sleep when we want, and have sex uninterrupted in glorious privacy?”
“Yes, besides that. I like that I can do whatever the hell I want. If I want to go and kill some ghouls, I go and do it. I don’t have to sit through a three-hour Pack Council meeting and debate the merits of ghoul killing and its effects on the Pack’s welfare and each goddamn individual clan in particular.” I laughed softly. The Pack had seven clans, segregated by the nature of their beasts, and each clan had two alphas. Dealing with alphas had to be one of the circles of hell.
Curran shrugged his muscled shoulders. “Laugh all you want. When I was fifteen and Mahon pushed me to reach for power, I did it because I was young and stupid. I thought it was a crown. I didn’t realize it was a ball and chain instead. I’m off my chain now. I like it.”
I pretended to shiver. Considering the way he said “I like it,” I didn’t have to pretend very hard. “Off your chain. So dangerous, Your Majesty.”
He glanced at me.
“You might be too scary to let into the house. I don’t know if I can risk falling asleep next to you, Unchained One. Who knows what would happen?”
“Who said anything about sleeping?”
I opened my mouth to taunt him and clamped it shut. I couldn’t see the house, but I could see the section of the front lawn painted in a yellow electric glow. It was past midnight. Julie, my ward, should’ve been in bed long ago. There was no reason for the lights to be on.
Curran broke into a run. I urged Cuddles forward. Cuddles balked. Apparently she didn’t feel like running. “Come on, donkey!” I growled.
She backed up.
Screw it. I jumped off her back and ran to the house. The door handle turned in my hand. I jerked the door open and dashed inside.
A soft electric light bathed our kitchen. Curran stood to the side. Julie sat at the table, wrapped in a blanket, her blond hair a mess. She saw me and yawned. I slowed down just enough not to ram into the kitchen table and burst into the kitchen. A one-armed woman with a mane of dark curly hair sat at the table across from Julie, a cup of coffee in front of her. George. Mahon’s daughter and the Pack’s clerk of court.
She turned to me, her face haggard. “I need help.”
Julie yawned again. “Bye. I’m going to bed.” “Thank you for staying up with me,” George said.
“No problem.” Julie gathered her blanket and went up the staircase. Something thudded.
“I’m okay!” she called out. “I fell up, but I’m okay.”
She thumped up the stairs, and then the sound of a door closing announced she had reached her bedroom.
I pulled up a chair and sat. Curran leaned against the wall. He was still in his beast shape. Most shapeshifters could only change form once in a twenty four-hour span. Shifting twice in a short period of time pretty much guaranteed that they’d pass out for a few hours and wake up ravenous. Curran had higher capacity than most, but we’d had a long night and the change still tired him. He probably wanted to be sharp for this conversation. After Curran’s family was slaughtered, Mahon found him and took him in. Curran had grown up with George. Her real name was Georgetta—and she threatened to pull your arms out if you used it—and she was as close to a sister as he had.
“What happened?” Curran asked.
George took a deep breath. Her face was pale, her features sharp, as if her skin were stretched too tight on her face. “Eduardo is missing.”
I frowned. Clan Heavy mostly consisted of werebears, but a few of their members turned into other large animals, like boars. Eduardo Ortego was a werebuffalo. He was huge in either shape. In a fight, he didn’t battle, he bulldozed his opponents down and they didn’t get up once he rolled over them. I liked Eduardo. He was honest, direct, and brave, and he would put himself between danger and a friend in a heartbeat. He was also unintentionally hilarious, but that was neither here nor there.
“Have you spoken to your dad?” Curran asked.
“Yes.” George looked into her cup. “He wasn’t unhappy about it.”
Why would Mahon be happy that Eduardo had disappeared? The werebuffalo was one of the best fighters Clan Heavy had. When we left for the Black Sea to procure medicine for the Pack, Clan Heavy had three spots on our crew. George volunteered for the first, Mahon took the second, and he chose Eduardo for the third.
“George,” Curran said. “Start at the beginning.” “Eduardo and I are together,” George said.
“Like together together?” I thought Eduardo liked Jim’s sister. She nodded.
Knock me over with a feather. I had seen them both in the Keep probably a hundred times since then and I would’ve never guessed they had a thing. I must’ve been blind or something.
Now that I thought of it, they did spend a lot of time together on the voyage back . . .
“How long?” Curran asked.
“Since we came back from getting the panacea,” George said. “I love him. He loves me. He rented a house for us. We want to get married.”
“Mahon is a problem?” Curran guessed.
George grimaced. “Ed isn’t a bear. Nobody but a Kodiak would do. If not a Kodiak, then at least some sort of a bear. That’s why we were so careful. I tried talking to Dad seven weeks ago. It went badly. I asked him what would happen if I got serious with another shapeshifter who wasn’t a bear.”
She looked into her cup again.
“What did he say?” Curran asked, his voice gentle.
George looked up. Her eyes flashed and for a moment my mind shot back to an enormous bear bursting into a room, roaring. George was a Kodiak like her father. Underestimating her was deadly. I thought she was dejected, but now I finally identified the emotion that sharpened her face. George was pissed off and she was using every ounce of her will to keep from exploding.
She spoke, her voice shaking with rage. “He told me he would disown me.”
“That sounds like him,” Curran said.
She shot out of the chair and began to pace the kitchen, circling around the island like a caged animal. “He said that I had a duty to the clan. That I had to pass on my genes and make werebear children with a proper werebear man.”
“Did you tell him that if he likes werebear men so much, maybe he should marry one?” I said. I would pay money to see Mahon’s face when he heard it.
She kept pacing. “Of all the archaic idiotic things...His brain must’ve crusted over. Maybe he’s gone senile.”
“You know he says shit like this,” Curran began.
She spun to him. “Don’t you dare tell me he doesn’t mean it.”
“No, he means it,” Curran said. “That man believes in his heart that bears are superior. He means every word when he says it, but he doesn’t follow through on it. In the seventeen years I ran the Pack, I’ve had about two dozen complaints about him, always about things he says and never about things he does. He has firm ideas about conduct unbecoming an alpha and a bear. Taking out Eduardo would be out of character for him.”
“You weren’t there.” George kept pacing. “You didn’t hear him.”
If I gave them a chance, they’d talk about Mahon all night. “What happened after you spoke with your father?”
George shook her head. “You know what this bullshit about passing on genes means? It means that if Eduardo and I had children, my father would think they are deficient. You don’t understand, Kate. I’m his daughter!”
“Of course, I don’t,” I said. “I never had problems with my father.”
George opened her mouth and stopped. When it came to Daddy issues, I won to infinity.
“What happened after Mahon and you had a chat?” I asked.
“Eduardo and I talked about it. Eduardo was doing odd jobs for Clan Heavy and also helping me with the legal filings. That would all disappear. Jim needs my dad to maintain his power base. I don’t have a shred of doubt that if my dad made a stink, my job with the Pack would evaporate, too.”
“Your mom would kill him,” Curran said.
“Yes, she would,” George said. “But it would be after the fact, and the argument would be that it’s already done and Jim couldn’t rehire me because it would make him look weak and indecisive. So I began to quietly cash out my investments, and Eduardo rented a house in the city and registered with the Guild.”
The Mercenary Guild was the largest for-profit magic cleanup agency in Atlanta. When people encountered some dangerous magic beast or problem, they called the Paranormal Activity Division first, but cops in post-Shift Atlanta were overworked and stretched too thin. In some cases people called the Order of Merciful Aid next, but dealing with the knights meant giving them complete authority. When the cops couldn’t come out and the matter was either too minor or too shady for the Order of Merciful Aid, you called the Guild. They did bodyguard details, they did magic hazmat cleanup, they did search and destroy—they weren’t picky as long as money was involved. I’d been a member of the Guild for nine years now. It used to be a good place to earn money, but since the death of its founder, the Guild had gone to hell in a handbasket.
“How did he do at the Guild?” I asked.
“He did well,” George said. “He said some people gave him trouble, but it wasn’t anything he couldn’t handle.”
Eduardo would do well at the Guild. He fit the type. When people called the Guild, they wanted to be reassured, and a six-foot-four man muscled like an Olympic medalist wrestler provided a lot of reassurance. Some of the regulars would screw with him because they didn’t like competition, but the Guild zoned the gigs. Each merc was assigned a territory within the city and if a job fell into that territory, they automatically got it, so while the rest of the mercs could run their mouths and hassle Eduardo, there wasn’t much they could do to keep him from earning money.
“I think Dad figured us out,” George said. “Last week Patrick came to talk to Eduardo.”
I mentally riffled through the roster of Clan Heavy shapeshifters for Patrick. He was Mahon’s nephew, a carbon copy of his uncle with a matching attitude and size.
“He told Eduardo that what he was doing was wrong and that if he cared about me, he’d leave me alone and not tear me away from the family.”
“Would Patrick do something like that on his own?” I asked him. Curran shook his head. “No. When Patrick opens his mouth, Mahon speaks. Patrick is an enforcer, not a thinker. That’s why Mahon hasn’t been grooming him for the alpha spot.”
“Eduardo told him he had no idea what he was talking about. Patrick left. On Monday, Eduardo didn’t come back to his house. I waited all night.” I grabbed a notepad and a pen from the built-in shelves. “When was the last time you saw or spoke with Eduardo?”
“Monday morning at seven thirty. He asked what I wanted for dinner that night.”
Today was Wednesday, just barely, since we were just past midnight. Eduardo had been gone about forty hours.
“He didn’t call me at lunch,” George said. “He usually does. I thought maybe he got held up. I went to his house Monday evening. He never showed. He didn’t call and didn’t leave a note. I know there are some bullshit rules about how long a person has to be missing, but I’m telling you, this isn’t like him. He doesn’t just leave me hanging. Something bad happened.”
“Did you talk to the Guild?” I asked.
“I went there this morning and asked about him. Nobody told me anything.”
That wasn’t surprising. Mercs were cagey.
George’s voice trembled with barely contained rage. “When I came out, my car was gone.”
Curran leaned forward. His voice was iced over. “They stole your car?” She nodded.
That was scummy even for the Guild. “They thought she was an easy target,” I said. “Young woman, alone, one-armed, doesn’t look like a fighter.” They didn’t realize that she could turn into a thousand-pound bear in a blink.
I got up, walked over to the phone, and dialed the Guild. If Eduardo took a job, the Clerk would know. When someone called the Guild with a problem, the Clerk figured out which zone it fell into and called that merc. If the merc was busy or couldn’t handle the job, the Clerk would then call the next person in “the chain” until he found someone to take the job. If he failed to find anybody, he’d pin the gig ticket to a board, which meant anybody could grab it. Some jobs went to select people because they required special qualifications, but the majority of gigs followed this pattern. The gig distribution ran like a well-oiled machine and the Clerk had been there for so long, nobody remembered his name. He was just Clerk with a “the” in front of it, the guy who made sure you had a job and would get paid. If Eduardo had taken a gig on Monday, the Clerk would know when and where.
The phone rang.
“Yeah?” a gruff male voice said.
“This is Daniels. Let me talk to the Clerk.”
Odd, the Clerk usually worked the night shift during the first week of the month.
“What about Lori?” Lori was the Clerk ’s standby.
“When will either of them be in?” “How the hell should I know?” Disconnect signal.
What the devil was going on at the Guild?
I turned back to George. “We’ll go by there first thing in the morning.” Even if the Clerk wasn’t there now, he or one of his subs would be there in the morning. “I know this is a hard question, but is there any way Eduardo could’ve gotten scared off and left?”
George didn’t hesitate. “No. He loves me. And if he left, he wouldn’t have abandoned Max.”
“Max?” I asked.
“His pug,” she said. “He’s had him for five years. He takes his dog everywhere with him. When I came there on Monday, Max was in the office with just enough water and food to last through the day.”
Eduardo had a pug. For some reason, that didn’t surprise me. “What’s Jim doing about this?” I asked.
“Nothing,” George said. “I reported Eduardo missing to him in private. He told me that he would look into it, and then two hours later he said that Dad was aware Eduardo hadn’t checked in.”
I glanced at Curran.
“Mahon pulled the clan card,” Curran said. “Eduardo’s disappearance is a Clan Heavy matter. Unless the shapeshifter is an employee of the Pack overall or the clan requests Jim’s assistance, he can’t do much. He can tell his people to be on the lookout for Eduardo but won’t actively search for him.”
“Can’t or won’t?” I asked.
“Both,” Curran said. “An active search would involve questioning members of Clan Heavy, which would infringe on Mahon’s authority as an alpha. There are strict guidelines that protect the autonomy of each clan within the Pack, and this would cross the line. George is right. Jim needs Mahon to keep his power base together. He won’t do anything to intentionally aggravate him. In a year or two when Jim’s well established, it might be different, but for now Jim knows he’s walking a tightrope. If he actively searches for Eduardo, Mahon can spin it as Jim insulting him and abusing his position as the Beast Lord. The moment Mahon publicly confronts Jim, it will be seen as a vote of no confidence in Jim’s ability to lead, and the rest of the clans will scream that Jim is a dictator who is infringing on their rights. If that happens, Jim can’t win. If he doesn’t do anything, he’ll look weak, and if he challenges Mahon, he’ll look like a dictator. It’s a bad place to be, and Jim is too smart to go there.”
Curran was right about Mahon. It was unlikely that the Bear, as Mahon was known, had made Eduardo disappear. It wouldn’t fit with his ethical code. But if Eduardo had managed to disappear on his own, Mahon could take advantage of the situation. He simply wouldn’t have to search for him that hard. George had a huge family on her side. She had grown up in Atlanta and if she vanished, the entirety of Clan Heavy would look for her. But Eduardo was an outsider. He’d arrived in Atlanta roughly three years ago and as far as I knew, he had no family in the state.
“I don’t even know if he’s dead or alive.” George’s composure broke. Tears wet her eyes. Her voice turned into a ragged snarl. “He could be dead in a ditch somewhere and nobody is looking for him. I keep seeing it in my head, him cold and dead somewhere, covered in dirt. I might never see him again. How does this even happen? How can someone you love be there one second and then gone the next?”
Curran pushed away from the wall and put his monster arms around her gently. “It will be okay,” he said quietly. “Kate will find him.”
I didn’t know if I should be happy he had complete confidence in me or mad because he was making a promise I wasn’t sure I could keep. I decided on happy, because I could see a mine buried in our path and I had to tell them about it.
George cried soundlessly, worry and anger leaking out from her eyes. She had watched my back during the trip to the Black Sea. She’d fought for the Pack and she’d sacrificed her arm to save a pregnant woman from being murdered. She was the one who was always upbeat, always confident and comfortable in her own skin. She laughed easily and she said what she thought, because she had no trouble defending her opinion. And now she was crying and frantic, and it made me angry, as if something had gone really wrong with the world. Life was unfair, but this was pushing it. I had to fix this.
George stepped away from Curran and rubbed her face with her hand, trying to erase the tears.
“We have a problem,” I said. “Once we start pulling on this string, the other end might lead back to Clan Heavy. Even if George officially hires us and Cutting Edge to look for Eduardo, Jim can still block it. It’s in our contract. When the Pack authorized seed money for Cutting Edge, they put in a clause that in the event a member of the Pack is implicated in any crime, the investigation has to be cleared by the Beast Lord. Jim has the power of veto.”
“Who put that in?” George growled. I nodded at Curran. “He did.”
“It seemed like a good idea at the time,” he said. “So how do we get around this?” I asked.
Curran looked at George. “I am going to ask you a question and I need you to think about it very carefully before you answer. Have you ever heard Eduardo Ortego express an intention to leave the Pack as part of my separation staff ?”
Nice. If Eduardo left the Pack with Curran, then Curran would have both the authority and the duty to protect him.
George drew herself to her full height. “Yes.” I had a feeling she had just lied.
“I also intend to leave the Pack with you,” she said. Oh boy.
“Think it over,” Curran said. “This means you’ll be severing ties with your clan. Your parents won’t be thrilled either. If it turns out that your father had nothing to do with Eduardo’s disappearance, you might regret it.”
“Give me the contract,” George said. Curran didn’t move.
“Curran, give me the paper.”
He walked over to the shelf, took a binder from the top, and opened it to a blank separation contract. “Once you sign it, you have to completely separate yourself from the Pack within thirty days.”
George took the pen and signed her name on the line. “That’s not a problem. I can leave tonight.”
“No, you can’t,” I said. “You have to go back.”
“Because we can’t walk into the Keep and start an investigation,” Curran said. “We’re blocked by Pack law. You know this. It’s a trade-off: we don’t attempt to influence people into leaving with us, and Jim can’t interfere if they do. We’re no longer part of the Pack, but you still are.”
“You have to go back, do your job, and listen,” I said. “You’re well-liked and respected. Eduardo was well liked, too. You might hear something. If someone from Clan Heavy did make Eduardo disappear, your being there will be a constant reminder of that. The guilt will eat at them and they might feel bad and come clean, or at least point you in the right direction.”
“I can fight,” George growled. “Just because I have one arm . . .”
“I know it doesn’t slow you down,” Curran said. “But I need you inside the Pack. Talk to Patrick. On your worst day you can run circles around him.
Compliment him for looking out for you. See what he knows. It might help us find Eduardo.”
She thought about it. “Okay.”
I pulled the writing pad closer to me. “Now, I need you to tell me about Eduardo. Where he lives, what his family is like, what he likes to do. Tell me everything.”
Thirty minutes later we were done.
“I should go home,” George said.
“We have more than enough bedrooms,” I said. “Why don’t you spend the night?”
She shook her head. “No, I want to be home in case he calls. You will find him, Kate?”
George was looking at me with a familiar anxious hope in her eyes. I had seen it before in the faces of people driven to their breaking point. Sometimes you love someone so much that when something bad happens to them, you’ll do anything to keep them safe. If I promised to make Eduardo magically appear if George stabbed herself in the heart, she would do it. She was drowning and she was begging me for some straw to grasp.
I opened my mouth to lie and couldn’t. The last time I promised to find someone, I found her chewed-up corpse. That was how Julie came to live with me. “I promise you that we will do everything we can. We’ll keep looking and we won’t stop until we find something or you ask us to walk away.”
The relief was plain in her eyes. She hadn’t heard a thing I said except “we’ll find something.” “Thank you.”
George left. I headed upstairs while Curran lingered downstairs to check the doors. It was our nightly ritual. He checked the doors downstairs and I checked the windows on the second floor, while Julie checked the third. I climbed to the second floor and stopped. Julie sat on the landing, wrapped in her blanket. She was holding a stuffed owl.
I remembered the look on Julie’s face when she told me she’d seen the torn-up body of her mother. It was seared into my memory. After Julie’s father died, her mother drank too much and didn’t pay as much attention to Julie’s existence as she used to, but she loved her daughter deeply and Julie loved her back with the single-minded devotion of a child. A piece of Julie’s childhood died that day, and no matter how hard I tried, I could never bring it back. I had wished so badly that I could have found Jessica Olsen alive, but she died before I had even started looking.
Julie didn’t talk about it. She never said her mother’s name. One day we were walking down the street past a yard sale and Julie stopped without saying a word. She walked over to the box of toys and pulled out a big stuffed owl toy, just a ball of brown velvet with two dorky white eyes, a yellow triangle of a beak, and two flappy wings. She hugged it and I saw a heartbreaking desperation in her eyes. I bought the owl on the spot and she took it home. Later she told me she used to have one like it when she was a toddler. That owl was a secret treasured memory of being happy and being loved, sheltered and protected by two people who adored her, never suspecting that the world would one day smash it all to pieces. It had been a year since we found it and she still hugged it when she went to sleep.
“I gave her the rest of the apple pie,” Julie said. “I hope you don’t mind. She’s a bear and they like sweets. It made her feel better.”
“I don’t mind,” I said.
“You’re going to find him, right?”
“I’m going to try.”
“I’ll help you,” Julie said. “Tell me if you need anything.”
She gathered up her owl and her blanket and stood up. “I like Eduardo and George. They’re always nice to me.” She hesitated. “I don’t want her to feel what it’s like.”
My heart tried to flip over in my chest. It hurt. “I know.” Julie nodded and went to the third floor.
I would find Eduardo. I would find him because he was my friend, because George had suffered enough and deserved a chance to be happy, and because I knew what it was like to have someone you love ripped away from you.