Magic Bleeds – Ilona Andrews

NO MATTER HOW CAREFULLY I PATTED THE chopped apples into place, the top crust of my apple pie always looked like I’d tried to bury a dismembered body under it. My pies turned out ugly, but they tasted good. This particular pie was rapidly losing the last of its heat. I surveyed the spread in my kitchen. Venison steaks, marinated in beer, lightly seasoned, sitting in a pan ready to be popped into the oven. I’d saved them for last—they wouldn’t take but ten minutes under the broiler. Homemade rolls, now cold. Corn on the cob, also cold. Baked potatoes, yep, very cold. I’d added some sautéed mushrooms and a salad just in case what I had wasn’t enough. The butter on the mushrooms was doing its best to congeal into a solid state. At least the salad was supposed to be cold. I plucked a creased note from the table. Eight weeks ago, Curran, the Beast Lord of Atlanta, the lord and master of fifteen hundred shapeshifters, and my own personal psycho, had sat in the kitchen of my apartment in Atlanta and written out a menu on this piece of paper. I’d lost a bet to him, and according to the terms of our wager, I owed him one naked dinner.

He’d added a disclaimer explaining that he’d settle for my wearing a bra and panties, since he wasn’t a complete beast—an assertion very open to debate. He’d set a date, November 15, which was today. I knew this because I had checked the calendar three times already. I had called him at the Keep three weeks ago and set the place, my house near Savannah, and the time, 5 p.m. It was eight thirty now. He’d said he couldn’t wait. Food—check. My most flattering set of bra and panties—check. Makeup—check.

Curran—blank. I drew my finger along the pale blade of my saber, feeling the cold metal under my skin. Where exactly was His Majesty? Did he get cold feet? Mr. “You’ll sleep with me and say please before and thank you after”? He’d chased a flying palace through an enchanted jungle and carved his way through dozens of rakshasa demons to save me. Dinner was a huge deal to shapeshifters. They never took food for granted, but making a dinner for someone you were romantically interested in took a simple meal to a whole new level. When a shapeshifter made you dinner, he was either pledging to take care of you or he was trying to get into your pants. Most of the time, both. Curran had fed me soup once, when I was half-dead, and the fact that I had eaten it, even without knowing what that meant, amused him to no end. He wouldn’t miss this dinner.

Something must’ve held him up. I picked up the phone. Then again, he enjoyed screwing with me. I wouldn’t put it past him to hide outside in the bushes, watching me squirm. Curran treated women like wonderful toys: he wined them, dined them, took care of their problems, and once they grew completely dependent on him, he became bored. Maybe whatever I perceived to be between us was only in my head. He’d realized he won and had lost interest. Calling him would just give him an opportunity to gloat. I hung up the phone and looked at my pie some more. If you opened a dictionary and looked up “control freak,” you’d find Curran’s picture.

He ruled with steel claws, and when he said, “Jump,” there was hell to pay if you didn’t start hopping. He infuriated me and I drove him out of his skin. Even if he wasn’t truly interested, he wouldn’t miss a chance to see me present this dinner in my underwear. His ego was too big. Something must have happened. Eight forty-four. Curran served as the Pack’s first and last line of defense. Any hint of a significant threat, and he’d be out there, roaring and ripping bodies in half. He could be hurt. The thought stopped me cold.

It would take a bloody army to bring down Curran. Of the fifteen hundred homicidal maniacs under his command, he was the toughest and most dangerous sonovabitch. If something did happen, it had to be bad. He would’ve called if he’d been delayed by something minor. Eight forty-nine. I took the phone, cleared my throat, and dialed the Keep, the Pack’s stronghold on the outskirts of Atlanta. Just keep it professional. Less pathetic that way. “You’ve reached the Pack. What do you want?” a female voice said into the phone.

Friendly people, the shapeshifters. “This is Agent Daniels. Can I speak to Curran, please?” “He isn’t taking calls right now. Do you want to leave a message?” “Is he in the Keep?” “Yes, he is.” A heavy rock materialized in my chest and made it hard to breathe. “Message?” the female shapeshifter prompted. “Just tell him I called, please. As soon as possible.” “Is this urgent?” Fuck it. “Yes.

Yes, it is.” “Hold on.” Silence reigned. Moments dripped by, slowly, stretching thinner and thinner . “He says he’s too busy to talk to you right now. In the future, please go through proper channels and direct all your concerns to Jim, our security chief. His number is—” I heard my voice, oddly flat. “I have the number. Thanks.” “Anytime.

” I lowered the phone into the cradle very carefully. A tiny sound popped in my ears, and I had the absurd idea that it was my heart forming hairline cracks. He stood me up. He stood me up. I cooked a huge meal. I sat by the phone for the last four hours. I put on makeup, my second time in the past year. I bought a box of condoms. Just in case. I love you, Kate.

I’ll always come for you, Kate. You sonovabitch. Didn’t even have the balls to speak to me. I surged off the chair. If he was going to dump me after all that shit, I’d force him to do it in person. It took me less than a minute to get dressed and load my wrist guards with silver needles. My saber, Slayer, had enough silver in it to hurt even Curran, and right now I very much wanted to hurt him. I stalked through the house looking for my boots in a fury-steeped daze, found them in the bathroom of all places, and sat down on the floor to put them on. I pulled the left boot on, tapped my heel into place, and stopped. Suppose I did get to the Keep.

And then what? If he decided he didn’t want to see me, I’d have to cut my way through his people to get to him. No matter how much it hurt, I couldn’t do that. Curran knew me well enough to recognize that and use it against me. A vision of me sitting in the lobby of the Keep for hours popped into my head. Hell no. If the asshole did condescend to make an appearance, what would I say? How dare you dump me before the relationship even started? I’ve traveled six hours to tell you how much I hate you because you meant that much to me? He’d laugh in my face, then I’d slice him to ribbons and then he’d break my neck. I forced myself to grope for reason in the fog of my rage. I worked for the Order of Knights of Merciful Aid, which together with the Paranormal Activity Division, or PAD, and the Military Supernatural Defense Unit, or MSDU, formed the law enforcement defense against magical hazmat of all kinds. I wasn’t a knight, but I was a representative of the Order. Worse, I was the only representative of the Order with Friend of the Pack status, meaning that when I attempted to muscle my way into Pack-related problems, the shapeshifters didn’t tear me apart right away.

Any issues the Pack had with the law usually found their way to me. The shapeshifters came in two flavors: Free People of the Code, who maintained strict control over Lyc-V, the virus raging in their bodies; and loups, who surrendered to it. Loups murdered indiscriminately, bouncing from atrocity to atrocity until someone did the world a favor and murdered their cannibalistic asses. The Atlanta PAD viewed each shapeshifter as a loup-in-waiting, and the Pack responded by ratcheting up their paranoia and mistrust of outsiders to new and dizzying heights. Their position with the authorities was precarious at best, saved from open hostility by their record of cooperation with the Order. If Curran and I got into it, our fight wouldn’t be seen as a conflict between two individuals, but as the Beast Lord’s assault on an Order representative. Nobody would believe that I was dumb enough to start it. The shapeshifters’ standing would plummet. I had only a few friends, but most of them grew fur and claws. I’d make their lives hell to soothe my hurt.

For once in my life, I had to do the responsible thing. I pulled the boot off and threw it across the room. It thudded into the wood panel in the hallway. For years, first my father and then my guardian, Greg, had warned me to stay away from human relationships. Friends and lovers only brought you trouble. My existence had a purpose, and that purpose—and my blood—left no room for anything else. I had ignored the warnings of the two dead men and dropped my shields. It was time to suck it up and pay for it. I’d believed him. He was supposed to be different, to be more.

He’d made me hope for things I didn’t think I’d ever get. When hope broke, it hurt. Mine was a very big, very desperate hope, and it hurt like a sonovabitch. Magic flooded the world in a silent wave. The electric lamps blinked and died a quiet death, giving way to the blue radiance of the feylanterns on my walls. The enchanted air in the twisted glass tubes luminesced brighter and brighter until an eerie blue light filled the entire house. It was called post-Shift resonance: magic came in waves, negating technology, and then vanished as abruptly and unpredictably as it had appeared. Somewhere, gasoline engines failed and guns choked midbullet. The defensive spells around my house surged up, forming a dome over my roof and hammering home the point: I’d needed protection. I’d dropped my shields and let the lion in.

It was time to pay the piper. I got up off the floor. Sooner or later my job would bring me into contact with the Beast Lord. It was inevitable. I needed to get the hurt out of my system now, so when we met again, all he would get from me would be cold courtesy. I marched into the kitchen, trashed the dinner, and strode out. I had a date with a heavy punching bag, and I had no trouble imagining Curran’s face on it. An hour later, when I left for my apartment in Atlanta, I was so tired I fell asleep in my car moments after I steered my vehicle into the ley line and the magic current dragged it off toward the city. CHAPTER 1 I RODE THROUGH THE STREETS OF ATLANTA, ROCKING with the hoofbeats of my favorite mule, Marigold, who didn’t care for the birdcage attached to her saddle and really didn’t care for the globs of lizard spit dripping from my jeans. The birdcage contained a fist-sized clump of gray fuzz, which I’d had a devil of a time catching and which might or might not have been a living dust bunny.

The jeans contained about a half-gallon of saliva deposited on me by a pair of Trimble County lizards, which I’d managed to chase back into their enclosure at the Atlanta Center for Mythological Research. I was eleven hours and thirteen minutes into my shift, I hadn’t eaten since that morning, and I wanted a doughnut. Three weeks had passed since Curran had stood me up. For the first week, I was so angry I couldn’t see straight. The anger had subsided now, but the dense heavy stone remained in my chest, weighing me down. Strangely, doughnuts helped. Especially ones drizzled with chocolate. As expensive as chocolate was in our day and age, I couldn’t afford a whole chocolate bar, but the drizzle of chocolate syrup on the doughnuts did the job just well enough. “Hello, dear.” After almost a year of working for the Order, hearing Maxine’s voice in my head no longer made me jump.

“Hello, Maxine.” The Order’s telepathic secretary called everyone “dear,” including Richter, a new addition to the Atlanta chapter who was as psychotic as a knight of the Order could get without being stripped of his knighthood. Her “dears” fooled no one. I’d rather run ten miles with a rucksack full of rocks than face a chewing-out from Maxine. Perhaps it was the way she looked: tall, thin, ramrod straight, with a halo of tightly curled silver hair and the mannerisms of a veteran middle school teacher who had seen it all before and would not suffer fools gladly . “Richter is quite sane, dear. And is there any particular reason you keep picturing a dragon with my hair on its head and a chocolate doughnut in its mouth?” Maxine never read thoughts on purpose, but if you concentrated hard enough while “on call,” she couldn’t help picking up simple mental images. I cleared my throat. “Sorry.” “No problem.

I always thought of myself as a Chinese dragon, actually. We’re out of doughnuts, but I have cookies.” Mmm, cookies. “What do I have to do for a cookie?” “I know your shift is over, but I have an emergency petition and nobody to handle it.” Argh. “What’s the petition?” “Someone attacked the Steel Horse.” “The Steel Horse? The border bar?” “Yes.” Post-Shift Atlanta was ruled by factions, each with its own territory. Of all the factions in Atlanta, the People and the Pack were the largest and the two I most wanted to avoid. The Steel Horse sat right on the invisible border between their territories.

A neutral spot, it catered to both the People and the shapeshifters, as long as they could keep it civil. For the most part, they did. “Kate?” Maxine prompted. “Do you have any details?” “Someone started a fight and departed. They have something cornered in the cellar, and they’re afraid to let it out. They’re hysterical. At least one fatality.” A bar full of hysterical necromancers and werebeasts. Why me? “Will you take it?” “What kind of cookies?” “Chocolate chip with bits of walnuts in them. I’ll even give you two.

” I sighed and turned Marigold to the west. “I’ll be there in twenty.” Marigold sighed heavily and started down the night-drenched street. The Pack members drank little. Staying human required iron discipline, and the shapeshifters avoided substances that altered their grip on reality. A glass of wine with dinner or a single beer after work was pretty much their limit. The People also drank little, primarily because of the presence of shapeshifters. A bizarre hybrid of a cult, a corporation, and a research institute, they concerned themselves with the study of the undead, primarily vampires. Vampirus immortuus , the pathogen responsible for vampirism, eradicated all traces of ego from its victims, turning them into bloodlustcrazed monsters and leaving their minds nice and blank. Masters of the Dead, the People’s premier necromancers, took advantage of this occurrence—they navigated vampires by riding their minds and controlling their every move.

Masters of the Dead weren’t brawlers. Well-educated, lavishly compensated intellectuals, they were ruthless and opportunistic. Masters of the Dead wouldn’t be visiting a bar like the Steel Horse either. Too lowbrow. The Steel Horse catered to the journeymen, navigators-in-training, and since the Red Stalker murders, the People had tightened their grip on their personnel. A couple of drunk and disorderlies, and your study of the undead would come to an untimely end. The journeymen still got roaring drunk—most were too young and made too much money for their own good—but they didn’t do it where they’d get caught and they definitely didn’t do it with the shapeshifters watching. A shadow scuttled across the street, small, furry, and with too many legs. Marigold snorted and kept on, unfazed. The People were led by a mysterious figure known as Roland.

To most, he was a myth. To me, he was a target. He was also my biological father. Roland had sworn off children—they kept trying to kill him—but my mother really wanted me and he decided that, for her sake, he could suffer to try one more time. Except he changed his mind and tried to kill me in the womb. My mother ran and Roland’s Warlord, Voron, ran with her. Voron made it, my mother didn’t. I never knew her, but I knew that if my natural father ever found me, he’d move heaven and earth to finish what he started. Roland was legend. He’d survived for thousands of years.

Some thought he was Gilgamesh, some thought he was Merlin. He wielded incredible power and I wasn’t ready to fight him. Not yet. Contact with the People meant the risk of discovery by Roland and so I avoided them like a plague. Contact with the Pack meant the risk of contact with Curran, and right now that was worse

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