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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 octagon white and written keep out across it in large jagged letters. A reddish-brown splatter stained the bottom edge, looking suspiciously like dried 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 bargeboards, 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 across the field 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 rosebushes, 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 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 dark soil shivered.
Two more steps.
A mound formed to the right of us, the dirt shifting like waves of some jet-black sea.
"To the right," I murmured.
"I see it."
Long serpentine bone spines pierced the mound and slid through the soil toward us, like fins of a sea serpent gliding 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 black scorpion the size of a pony shot out and scrambled after us.
If we killed his pet scorpion, we'd never hear the end of it.
I ran up the porch and pounded on the door. "Roman!"
Behind me the bone spines whipped out of the soil. What I'd thought were fins turned into a cluster of tentacles, each consisting of bone segments held together by remnants of cartilage and dried, ropy connective tissue. The tentacles snapped, grabbing Curran. He locked his hands on the bones and strained, pulling them apart. Bone crunched, connective tissue tore, and the left tentacle flailed, half of it on the ground.
"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 pajama bottoms, and his dark hair, shaved on the sides into a long horselike mane, stuck out on the left side of his head. He looked like he'd been sleeping.
"What's all this?"
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 the peace and quiet. Come in."
He held the door open. I walked past him into a large living room. Golden wooden floors, huge fireplace, thirty-foot ceilings, and soft furniture. Bookshelves 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 and sat on the couch. "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 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 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."
"We'd like you to marry us," I said.
Roman's eyes went wide. He pointed to himself. "Me?"
"Yes," Curran said.
"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. It's good that he's a doctor, maybe he can treat himself."
He plugged the phone into the outlet.
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."
"You hungry? Do you want something to eat?" Roman wagged his eyebrows. "I have smoked brisket."
My fiancé leaned forward, suddenly interested. "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."
"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 Beast Lord, 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 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 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."
"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 his teeth.
"So why did your father mess with the convoys?" Roman 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 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 the claimed area, 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 lie 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 outside the boundary 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."