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Magic Shifts

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Magic Shifts

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Author: Ilona Andrews
Publisher: Ace Books, 2015
Series: Kate Daniels: Book 8
Book Type: Novel
Genre: Fantasy
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Synopsis

After breaking from life with the Pack, mercenary Kate Daniels and her mate--former Beast Lord Curran Lennart--are adjusting to a very different pace. While they're thrilled to escape all the infighting, Kate and Curran know that separating from the Pack completely is a process that will take time.

But when they learn that their friend Eduardo has gone missing, Kate and Curran shift their focus to investigate his disappearance. Eduardo was a fellow member of the Mercenary Guild, so Kate knows the best place to start looking is his most recent jobs. As Kate and Curran dig further into the merc's business, they discover that the Guild has gone to hell and that Eduardo's assignments are connected in the most sinister way...

An ancient enemy has arisen, and Kate and Curran are the only ones who can stop it--before it takes their city apart piece by piece.


Excerpt

Chapter One

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.

Damn 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."

Hee-hee.

"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.

Columbia, SC

014

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.

Copyright © 2015 by Ilona Andrews


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