Magic Binds – Ilona Andrews

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.” “Exactly.” 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.

Uh-oh. “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?” Everything stopped. Roman squinted at me. “What are you guys doing here?” “We had to come here because you don’t answer your damn phone.” Curran’s voice had that icy quality that said his patience was at an end. “I didn’t answer it because I unplugged it.” Roman waved his hand. The scorpion retreated. The tentacles gently set me down and slithered back into the ground. “You would unplug yours too if you were related to my family. My parents are fighting again and they’re trying to make me choose sides.

I told them they could talk to me when they start acting like responsible adults.” Fat chance of that. Roman’s father, Grigorii, was the head black volhv in the city. His mother, Evdokia, was one-third of the Witch Oracle. When they had fights, things didn’t boil over, they exploded. Literally. “So far I’ve avoided both of them, so I’m enjoying 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. “Black?” “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. “Mm-hm.” “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.” “I’m sorry?” “We’d like you to marry us,” I said.

Roman’s eyes went wide. He pointed to himself. “Me?” “Yes,” Curran said. “Marry you?” “Yes.” “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. It rang. Roman stared at it as if it were a viper.

The phone rang again. He unplugged it. “There.” “It can’t be that bad,” I told him. “Oh, it’s bad.” Roman nodded. “My dad refused to help my second sister buy a house, because he doesn’t like her boyfriend. My mother called him and it went badly. She cursed him. Every time he urinates, the stream arches up and over.

” Oh. Curran winced. “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.

” “Did you?” “I did,” I said. “And now I have to go to the Conclave meetings.” “I’m there as a supportive spouse-to-be.” Curran grinned, flashing 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.” “And then we all somehow end up eating in some seafood joint, where he orders the whole menu and the waiters serve us glassy-eyed,” I said. Curran finished his coffee in one gulp. “Last week a flock of harpies attacked Druid Hills. It took the Guild six hours to put them down. One merc ended up in the hospital with some kind of acute magical rabies.” “Well, at least it’s rabies,” Roman said. “They carry leprosy, too.” “I called Roland about it,” I said.

“He said, ‘Who knows why harpies do anything, Blossom?’ And then he told me he had two tickets to see Aivisha sing and one of them had my name on it.” “Parents.” Roman heaved a sigh. “Can’t live with them. Can’t get away from them. When you try to move, they buy a house in your new neighborhood.” “That’s one thing about having both of your parents murdered,” Curran said. “I don’t have parent problems.” Roman and I looked at him. “We really do have to go,” I said.

“Thanks for the coffee.” Curran put his empty mug on the table. “No trouble,” Roman said. “I’ll get started on this wedding thing.” “We really appreciate it,” I said. “Oh no, no. My pleasure.” We got up, walked to the door, and I swung it open. A black raven flew past me and landed on the back of the couch. Roman slapped his hand over his face.

“There you are,” the raven said in Evdokia’s voice. “Ungrateful son.” “Here we go . ” Roman muttered. “Eighteen hours in labor and this is what I get. He can’t even pick up the phone to talk to his own mother.” “Mother, can’t you see I have people here?” “I bet if their mothers called them, they would pick up.” That would be a neat trick for both of us. Sadly, dead mothers didn’t come back to life, even in post-Shift Atlanta. “Nice to see you, Roman.

” I grabbed Curran by the hand. The bird swiveled toward me. “Katya!” Oh no. “Don’t you leave. I need to talk to you.” “Got to go, bye!” I jumped out of the house. Curran was only half a second behind me, and he pushed the door closed. I sped down the wooden path before Evdokia decided to track me down. “Are you actually running away from Evdokia?” “Yes, I am.” The witches weren’t exactly pleased with me.

They had trusted me to protect Atlanta and its covens, and I had claimed the city instead. “Maybe we could skip the Conclave tonight,” Curran said. “We can’t.” “Why?” “Because it’s Mahon’s turn to attend.” The Kodiak of Atlanta was brave and powerful and the closest thing to a father Curran had. He also had an uncanny ability to alienate everyone in the room and then have to defend himself when a brawl broke out. He took self-defense seriously. Sometimes there was no building left standing when he was done. “Jim will be there,” Curran said. “Nope.

” The Pack rotated Conclave duty between the alphas, so if something happened at the Conclave, the leadership of the Pack as a whole wouldn’t be wiped out. “Jim was at the last one. You would know this if you hadn’t skipped it to go fight that thing in the sewers. It will be Raphael and Andrea, Desandra, and your father. Unsupervised.” Curran swore. “What the hell is Jim thinking with that lineup?” “Serves you right for pretending you don’t have parent problems.” He growled something under his breath. Mahon and I didn’t always see eye to eye. He’d thought I wouldn’t make a good mate for Curran and that I was the reason Curran left the Pack, and he’d told me so, but now he’d come to terms with it.

We both loved Curran, so we had to deal with each other and we made the best of it. Although lately Mahon had been unusually nice to me. It was probably a trap. “We make it through the Conclave and then we can go home, drink coffee, and eat the apple pie I made last night,” I said. “It will be glorious.” He put his arm around me. “The Conclave is only a dinner.” “Don’t say it.” “How . ” I glared at him.

“I mean it! I want a nice quiet night.” “. bad could it be?” “Now you ruined it. If a burning giant busts through a window while we’re at the Conclave and tries to squish people, I will so punch you in the arm.” He laughed and we jogged down the winding forest path to our car. • • • BERNARD’S WAS ALWAYS full but never crowded. Housed in a massive English-style mansion in an affluent northern neighborhood, Bernard’s restaurant was one of those places where you had to make a reservation two weeks in advance, minimum. The food was beautiful and expensive, the portions tiny—and the patrons were the real draw. Men in thousand-dollar suits and women in glittering dresses with shiny rocks on their necks and wrists mingled and had polite conversation in hushed voices while sipping wine and expensive liquor. Curran and I walked into Bernard’s in our work clothes: worn jeans, T-shirts, and boots.

I would’ve preferred my sword too, but Bernard’s had a strict no-weapons policy, so Sarrat had to wait in the car. People stared as we walked to the conference room. People always stared. Whispers floated. “Is that her?” “She doesn’t look like . ” Ugh. Curran turned toward the sound, his eyes iced over, his expression flat. The whispers died. We entered the conference room, where a single long table had been set. The Pack was already there.

Mahon sat in the center seat facing the door, Raphael on his right, Desandra three seats down on his left. Mahon saw us and grinned, stroking his beard, which used to be black but now was shot through with silver. When you saw the Kodiak of Atlanta, one word immediately sprang to mind: “big.” Tall, with massive shoulders, barrel-chested and broad but not fat, Mahon telegraphed strength and raw physical power. While Curran held the coiled promise of explosive violence, Mahon looked like if the roof suddenly caved in, he would catch it, grunt, and hold it up. Next to him, Raphael couldn’t be more different. Lean, tall, and dark, with piercing blue eyes, the alpha of the bouda clan wasn’t traditionally handsome, but there was something about his face that made women obsess. They looked at him and thought of sex. Then they looked at his better half and decided that he wasn’t worth dying over. Especially lately, because Andrea was nine months pregnant and communicating mostly in snarls.

And she wasn’t at the table. Desandra, beautiful, blond, and built like a female prizefighter, poked at some painstaking arrangement of flowers and sliced meats on her plate that was probably supposed to be some sort of gourmet dish. She saluted us with a fork and went back to poking. Curran sat next to Mahon. I took the chair between him and Desandra and leaned forward, so I could see Raphael. “Where is Andrea?” “In the Keep,” he said. “Doolittle wants to keep an eye on her.” “Is everything okay?” She was due any day. “It’s fine,” Raphael said. “Doolittle is just hovering.

” And the Pack’s medmage was probably the only one who could force Andrea to comply. “Boy.” Mahon clapped his hand on Curran’s shoulder. His whole face was glowing. Curran grinned back. It almost made the Conclave worth it. “Old man,” Curran said. “You’re looking thinner. Trimming down for the wedding? Or she not feeding you enough?” “He eats what he kills,” I said. “I can’t help it that he’s a lousy hunter.

” Mahon chuckled. “I’ve been busy,” Curran said. “The Guild takes a lot of work. Outside the Keep, it’s not all feasts and honey muffins. You should try it sometime. You’re getting a gut and winter isn’t coming for six months.” “Oh.” Mahon turned, rummaged in the bag he’d hung on the chair, and pulled out a large rectangular Tupperware container. “Martha sent these for you since you never come to the house.” Curran popped the lid off.

Six perfect golden muffins. The aroma of honey and vanilla floated around the table. Desandra came to life like a winter wolf who heard a bunny nearby. Curran took one muffin, passed it to me, and bit into a second one. “We came to your house last week.” “I was out on clan business. That doesn’t count.” I bit into the muffin and, for the five seconds it took me to chew, went to heaven. The People filed into the room. Ghastek was in the lead: tall, painfully thin, and made even thinner by the dark suit he wore.

Rowena walked a step behind him, shockingly stunning as always. Today she wore a whiskey-colored cocktail dress that hugged her generous breasts and hips, while accentuating her narrow waist. Her waterfall of red hair was plaited into a very wide braid and twisted into a knot on the side. I wouldn’t even know how to start that hairdo. I missed my long hair. It was barely past my shoulders now and there wasn’t much I could do with it, besides letting it loose or pulling it back into a ponytail. Curran leaned toward me, his voice barely above a whisper. “Why didn’t those two ever get together?” “I have no idea. Why would they?” “Because all the other Masters of the Dead are in relationships. These two are unattached and always together.

” Shapeshifters gossiped worse than old ladies. “Maybe they did get together and we don’t know?” Curran shook his head slightly. “No, I had them under surveillance for years. He never came out of her house and she never came out of his.” The People took the seats across from us. “Any pressing business?” Ghastek asked. Mahon pulled out a piece of lined paper. Half an hour later both the People and the Pack ran out of things to discuss. Nothing major had happened, and the budding dispute over a real estate office on the border between the Pack and the People was quickly resolved. Wine was served, followed by elaborate desserts that had absolutely nothing on Martha’s honey muffins. It was actually kind of nice, sitting there, sipping the sweet wine. I never thought I would miss the Pack, but I did, a little. I missed the big meals and the closeness. “Congratulations on the upcoming wedding,” Ghastek said. “Thank you,” I said. Technically, Ghastek and the entire Atlanta office of the People belonged to my father, who had been quietly reinforcing them. Two new Masters of the Dead had been assigned to Ghastek, bringing the total count of the Masters of the Dead to eight. Several new journeymen had joined the Casino as well. I made it a habit to drive by it once in a while and every time I did, I felt more vampires within the white textured walls of the palace than I had before. Ghastek was a dagger poised at my back. So far that dagger remained sheathed and perfectly cordial, but I never forgot where his allegiance lay. “Ghastek, why haven’t you married?” I asked. He gave me a thin-lipped smile. “Because if I were to get married, I would want to have a family. To me, marriage means children.”

.

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