Read an Excerpt
I SAT AT A TABLE IN MY SHADOWY KITCHEN, STARING down a bottle of Boone’s Farm Hard Lemonade, when a magic fluctuation hit. My wards shivered and died, leaving my home stripped of its defenses. The TV flared into life, unnaturally loud in the empty house.
I raised my eyebrow at the bottle and bet it that another urgent bulletin was on.
The bottle lost.
“Urgent bulletin!” Margaret Chang announced. “The Attorney General advises all citizens that any attempt at summoning or other activities resulting in the appearance of a supernaturally powerful being can be hazardous to yourself and to other citizens.”
“No shit,” I told the bottle.
“Local police have been authorized to subdue any such activities with all due force.”
Margaret droned on, while I bit into my sandwich. Who were they kidding? No police force could hope to squash every summoning. It took a qualified wizard to detect a summoning in progress. It required only a half-literate idiot with a twitch of power and a dim idea of how to use it to attempt one. Before you knew it, a three-headed Slavonic god was wreaking havoc in downtown Atlanta, the skies were raining winged snakes, and SWAT was screaming for more ammo. These were unsafe times. But then in safer times, I’d be a woman without a job. The safe tech-world had little use for a magic-touting mercenary like me.
When people had trouble of a magic kind, the kind that cops couldn’t or wouldn’t handle, they called the Mercenary Guild. If the job happened to fall into my territory, the Guild then called me. I grimaced and rubbed my hip. It still ached after the last job, but the wound had healed better than I expected. That was the first and last time I would agree to go against the Impala Worm without full body armor. The next time they better furnish me with a level four containment suit.
An icy wave of fear and revulsion hit me. My stomach lurched, sending acid to coat the root of my tongue with a bitter aftertaste. Shivers ran along my spine, and the tiny hairs on my neck stood on end.
Something bad was in my house.
I put down my sandwich and hit the mute button on the remote control. On the screen Margaret Chang was joined by a brick-faced man with a high-and-tight haircut and eyes like slate. A cop. Probably Paranormal Activity Division. I put my hand on the dagger that rested on my lap and sat very still.
No sound troubled the silence. A drop of water formed on the sweaty surface of the Boone’s Farm bottle and slid down its glistening side.
Something large crawled along the hallway ceiling into the kitchen. I pretended not to see it. It stopped to the left of me and slightly behind, so I didn’t have to pretend very hard.
The intruder hesitated, turned, and anchored itself in the corner, where the ceiling met the wall. It sat there, fastened to the paneling by enormous yellow talons, still and silent like a gargoyle in full sunlight. I took a swig from the bottle and set it so I could see the creature’s reflection. Nude and hairless, it didn’t carry a single ounce of fat on its lean frame. Its skin stretched so tight over the hard cords of muscle, it threatened to snap. Like a thin layer of wax melted over an anatomy model.
Your friendly neighborhood Spiderman.
The vampire raised its left hand. The dagger talons sliced the empty air, back and forth, like curved knitting needles. The vamp turned its head doglike and studied me with eyes luminescent with a particular kind of madness, born of bestial blood thirst and free of any thought or restraint.
In a single motion I whipped around and hurled the dagger. The black blade sliced cleanly into the creature’s throat.
The vampire froze. Its yellow claws stopped moving.
Thick, purplish blood swelled around the blade and slowly slid down the naked flesh of the vampire’s neck, staining its chest and dripping on the floor. The vampire’s features twisted, trying to morph into a different face. It opened its maw, displaying twin fangs, curved like miniature ivory sickles.
“That was extremely inconsiderate, Kate,” Ghastek’s voice said from the vampire’s throat. “Now I have to feed him.”
“It’s a reflex. Hear a bell, get food. See an undead, throw a knife. Same thing, really.”
The vampire’s face jerked as if the Master of the Dead controlling it tried to squint.
“What are you drinking?” Ghastek asked.
“You can afford better.”
“I don’t want better. I like Boone’s Farm. And I prefer to do business by phone, and with you, not at all.”
“I don’t wish to hire you, Kate. This is merely a social call.”
I stared at the vampire, wishing I could put my knife into Ghastek’s throat. It would feel very good cutting into his flesh. Unfortunately he sat in an armored room many miles away.
“You enjoy screwing with me, don’t you, Ghastek?”
The million-dollar question was why. “What is it you want? Make it quick, my Boone’s Farm’s getting warm.”
“I was just wondering,” Ghastek said with dry neutrality particular only to him, “when was the last time you saw your guardian?”
The nonchalance in his voice sent tiny shivers down my spine. “Why?”
“No reason. As always, a pleasure.”
In a single powerful leap the vampire detached itself from the wall and flew through the open window, taking my knife with it.
I reached for the phone, swearing under my breath, and dialed the Order of Knights of Merciful Aid. No vampire could breach my wards when the magic was in full swing. Ghastek had no way of knowing when the magic would ebb, so he must have been watching my house for some time, waiting for my defensive spells to fail. I took a swig from the bottle. That meant a vamp had been hiding someplace close when I came home last night, and I didn’t see or feel it. How reassuring. Might just as well write “Alert R Us” on my merc ID.
One ring. Two. Three. Why would he ask me about Greg?
The phone clicked and a stern female voice delivered a practiced blurb, “Atlanta Chapter of the Order, how may I help you?”
“I would like to speak to Greg Feldman.”
A faint note of anxiety pulsed through her voice.
“I don’t have to give you my name,” I said into the receiver. “I wish to speak to the knight-diviner.”
A pause issued and a male voice said, “Please, identify yourself.”
They were stalling, probably trying to trace the call. What the hell was going on?
“No,” I said firmly. “Page seven of your Charter, third paragraph down: ‘Any citizen has a right to seek counsel of a knight-diviner without fear of retribution or need for identification.’ As a citizen, I insist that you put me in contact with the knight-diviner now or specify the time he can be reached.”
“The knight-diviner is dead,” the voice said.
The world halted. I skidded through its stillness, frightened and off balance. My throat ached. I heard my heart beating in my chest.
“How?” My voice was calm.
“He was killed in the line of duty.”
“Who did it?”
“The matter is still under investigation. Look, if I could just get your name . . .”
I pushed the disconnect button and lowered the receiver in its place. I looked at the empty chair across from me. Two weeks ago Greg had sat in this chair, stirring his coffee. His spoon had made small precise circles, never touching the sides of the mug. For a moment I could actually see him right there, while the memory played in my mind.
Greg was looking at me with dark brown eyes, mournful, like the eyes of an icon. “Please, Kate. Suspend your dislike of me for a few moments and listen to what I have to say. It makes sense.”
“I don’t dislike you. It’s an oversimplification.”
He nodded, wearing that very patient expression that drove women mad. “Of course. I didn’t intend to slight or simplify your feelings. I merely wish us to concentrate on the substance of what I have to say. Could you please listen?”
I leaned back and crossed my arms. “I’m listening.”
He reached inside his leather jacket and produced a rolled-up scroll. He placed the scroll on the table and unrolled it slowly, holding it taut with the tips of his fingers.
“This is the invitation from the Order.”
I threw my hands in the air. “That’s it, I’m done.”
“Allow me to finish,” he said. He didn’t look angry. He didn’t tell me that I was acting like a child, although I knew that I was. It made me madder.
“Very well,” I said.
“In a few weeks you’ll turn twenty-five. While in itself that means very little, in terms of readmission into the Order it carries a certain weight. It’s much harder to gain entrance once you turn twenty-five. Not impossible. Just harder.”
“I know,” I said. “They’ve sent me brochures.”
He let go of the scroll and leaned back, lacing his long fingers. The scroll remained open even though every law of physics dictated that it should snap back into a roll. Greg forgot about physics sometimes.
“In that case, you’re aware of the age penalties.”
It wasn’t a question, but I answered it anyway. “Yes.”
He sighed. It was a small movement, only noticeable to those who knew him well. I could tell by the way he sat, very still, craning his neck slightly, that he had guessed at my decision.
“I wish you would reconsider,” he said.
“I don’t think so.” For a moment I could see the frustration in his eyes. We both knew what was left unsaid: the Order promised protection, and protection to someone of my lineage was paramount.
“Can I ask why?” he said.
“It’s not for me, Greg. I can’t deal with hierarchy.”
For him the Order was a place of refuge and security, a place of power. Its members committed themselves to the values of the Order completely, serving with such dedication that the organization itself no longer seemed a gathering of individuals, but an entity in itself, thinking, rationalizing, and incredibly powerful. Greg embraced it and it nurtured him. I fought it and almost lost.
“Every moment I spent there, I felt as if there was less of me,” I said. “As if I was shrinking. Dwindling away. I had to get out and I won’t go back.”
Greg looked at me, his dark eyes terribly sad. In this dim light, in my small kitchen, his beauty was startling. In some perverse way I was happy that my stubbornness forced him to visit and now he sat in a chair less than a foot away, like an ageless elven prince, elegant and sorrowful. God, how much I hated myself for this little girl fantasy.
“If you’ll excuse me,” I said.
He blinked, startled by my formality and then rose smoothly. “Of course. Thank you for the coffee.”
I saw him to the door. The outside had turned dark, and the bright light of the moon enameled the grass on my lawn with silver. By the porch, white Rose of Sharon flowers glowed against the shrubs like a scattering of stars.
I watched Greg descend down the three concrete steps into the yard.
“Yes?” He turned. His magic flared about him like a mantle.
“Nothing.” I closed the door.
My last memory of him, poised against the moonlight-drenched lawn and clothed in his magic.
I cradled myself with my arms, wanting to cry. The tears would not come. My mouth had gone dry. My last link to my family severed. Nobody was left. I had no mother, no father, and now no Greg. I clenched my teeth and went to pack.