MY NAME IS Barabas. I was named that because my mother was ambitious. It could be worse. One of my cousins is named Lucifer. I once asked my aunt why and she said, “Because I wanted him to be beautiful and to think for himself.” Boudas, or werehyenas as most people know us, have an interesting perspective on the world. Technically, I’m not a bouda. I’m a weremongoose, but my mother is a bouda and I grew up among them. At the time of writing this, I’m twenty-nine years old. I have a law degree from the University of Virginia and I currently reside in Atlanta. I’m employed as a Pack lawyer, which is to say I’m a member of the largest shapeshifter organization in the South and second largest on the continent of North America. I also work for the Consort of the Pack as a special advisor. The Consort refers to me as her nanny occasionally, and I find that term uniquely accurate. I would put one of those hideous child leashes on her if I could, except I’m reasonably sure she would cut my arm off. I find myself in a strange moment in time.
Something momentous is taking place right in front of me, something that I suspect will drastically alter the future of not just the Pack, not just my generation, but generations to come. I have a front-row seat. I’m in the middle of it. Yet nobody around me seems to realize that years from now our descendants will look back on this moment and wonder how it all happened. Someone must document it. After all, history is written by and for the survivors, and right now I’m not sure who those survivors will be. Don’t take me wrong, I don’t intend to roll over and fade into the night. I will rage with the best of them, just like Dylan Thomas’s poem advises. But on the off chance we don’t prevail, there must be a record of how hard we fought. It looks like I’ll be the one making that record, since nobody else can be bothered.
Funny how it always turns out that way. So, I suppose, I’ll begin at the beginning. The world has suffered a magic apocalypse. As expected, it was completely our own damn fault. In ancient times, technology and magic existed in perfect balance, but then came the human race. They built a civilization based on magic. Creatures of terror and beauty roamed the land. Wizards with godlike power built entire cities overnight and rained winged snakes and molten metal on their enemies. (As an aside, that age must’ve been a nightmare. Concentrating that much power in the hands of individual human beings? Why, that could never go wrong or lead to horrible atrocities.
Just read the Bible.) Finally the balance between magic and technology became so disrupted that magic receded. The cities wrought by magic crumbled, their wonders turned to dust, and their beasts became myth. Fast-forward five thousand years. It’s the early twenty-first century and we’ve created a civilization based on technology. Once again, we upset the balance and magic returned with a vengeance to slap us upside the head. It floods the planet in waves. One moment technology rules, internal combustion engines work, guns fire, and electricity keeps the monsters away. The next an invisible magic wave drowns the area, choking guns and spawning creatures with nightmarish teeth and robust appetites. Then, without warning, the magic wanes and SWAT’s mages stop spitting fire and switch back to rifles.
This apocalypse is called the Shift. The Shift destroyed the technological civilization. Air travel is no longer possible, because planes fall out of the sky when the magic hits. The Internet is all but dead, because half of the time we have no electricity and magic chomps computer parts into dust. Cell phones do not work, unless you’re in the military and have really good clearance. The high-rises and skyscrapers have fallen, gnawed to nubs by magic’s teeth, but life goes on and people survive. And in the new post-Shift Atlanta, new factions and powers came into play. First, there is the Pack. As mentioned, I am a shapeshifter and I work for the Pack, so I have a vested interest in explaining exactly who we are and what we do. The Pack is the second-largest shapeshifter organization in the country and has over fifteen hundred members.
It’s segregated into seven clans, according to the species of their beast, so boudas, wolves, and so on. Each clan is led by a pair of alphas. Together the alphas make up the Pack Council. But as Disney taught us, there must be a king, and our king is known as the Beast Lord, because we, as red-blooded Americans, have an issue with monarchy. His name is Curran Lennart. Curran took charge of the Pack when he was fifteen by defeating a mad werebear nobody could touch. He unified us. He persuaded the alphas to collectively purchase land and he built the Keep, our fortress, giving us a safe place to be ourselves. He imposed rules and laws and taught us that abuse won’t be tolerated. Because of him, we live together in relative prosperity.
When Curran says jump, we jump so hard, the ground shakes. Which isn’t to say that he doesn’t have bouts of assholeness, but all things considered, they are forgivable. He’s also a really scary bastard who is fond of “my way or the highway” style of governance. More on that later. We, the shapeshifters, are viewed with open suspicion by the rest of Atlanta. Our existence is the result of the Lyc-V virus, and sometimes the virus overwhelms our bodies, turning us into loups. Loups are vicious, insane, cannibalistic murderers. There is no cure for loupism, which is why we all practice strict discipline and undergo extensive mental conditioning to keep our emotions in check. When everything fails, there is panacea, an herbal concoction cooked with magic. It won’t cure loupism, but about thirty percent of the time, it will reverse the transformation in progress.
More on that later, also. In the eyes of the general public, every shapeshifter is a potential loup and “werewolf” is still a dirty word. Next up we have the People. They are a nationwide organization, with offices in every major city. The People pilot the undead, specifically vampires, for fun and profit, but if you ask them, they do it for some dubious scientific purposes. Vampires have no minds of their own. The Immortuus pathogen, which leads to the death and subsequent reanimation of its victims, cleanses their bodies of everything it doesn’t require, including internal organs, hair, genitalia, and consciousness. A vampire is a feeding machine, consumed by a never-ending hunger. They don’t speak; they don’t think; they kill anything with a pulse, and stopping one requires a heavy-duty antipersonnel howitzer or decapitation. Mincing them into small pieces has also been known to work, as the Consort has proven on many occasions.
A single vampire on the loose in the city results in the immediate evacuation of a ten-block radius and the dispatch of several emergency police units, because a single SWAT team will run out of ammo before they take it down. The necromancers—they prefer to be called navigators—telepathically grab hold of a vampire’s empty mind, imposing their will on that blank canvas. This is called piloting. The navigators pilot the vampires like remote-controlled cars. They see what the undead sees, they hear what he hears, and when a vampire speaks, the navigator’s voice comes out of his mouth. They can send the vampire into danger while sipping coffee in the armored bowels of the Casino. The best navigators call themselves Masters of the Dead, because modesty is clearly their most prized virtue. The People make their headquarters in the Casino, while our HQ is in the Keep. The People are the Pack’s biggest competition within the city. When we butt heads, people die; so a while ago, in an effort to cut down on possible bloodshed, we nominally divided the city into their “territory” and ours.
It’s a bit complicated with specific streets and areas, but for simplicity’s sake, north and northeast are ours and south and southwest are theirs. When you hear one of us say “city territory,” that’s what we mean. We don’t own property in each other’s specific areas, and we patrol our imaginary borders. Right now the People are embroiled in an inner power struggle. The head of the Atlanta office retired—or perhaps they killed him off, nobody knows—and two of the Masters of the Dead are maneuvering their way to the top spot. One is Ghastek, who is quite brilliant, competent, extremely dangerous, and wrapped in a protective shell of world-weary arrogance. Basically a know-it-all with the expertise and a pack of vampires to back it up. The other is Mulradin, of whom we know little except that he is a family man and he becomes perturbed when people say harmless things, such as “Holy shit!” in the earshot of his wife, who mustn’t be sullied by being exposed to such coarseness. Bite me. Here’s the kicker: most people don’t know it but the entirety of the People answer to one man.
Remember the Age of Magic and wizards with godlike powers? Turns out that when magic began to disappear from the world, not all of those wizards died. Some of them went into hibernation. Thousands of years later, the Shift woke one of them up. Think about it. Here’s a man unconstrained by ethics and morals. A man who used to rule an empire. A wizard-king, a law unto himself, who has lived for thousands of years with the power to crush thousands of lives with one single push of magic. A walking nuclear bomb. A man so powerful, he doesn’t need a name; he has phrases attached to him starting in all capitals. The Father of Undeath.
The Builder of Towers. He calls himself Roland now. I asked the Consort why and she showed me the Song of Roland. It’s a twelfth-century ballad about a knight who is ambushed because of treachery and refuses to blow his horn out of pride until all of his soldiers are dead and he finally blows so hard, his temples burst and he dies a martyr. Make of it what you will. Thousands of years ago, Roland created vampires and now he runs the People from his territory in the Midwest. There are stories and myths of him scattered throughout folklore, the Torah, the Bible, and other holy books under different names. Apparently, Roland has two compulsions. First, he is a social engineer. He builds empires.
He can’t help himself. He knows that the only way we can achieve enlightenment is under his rule. Democracy isn’t a concept he considers relevant, which is really bad news for us. Second, he falls in love. He falls in love a lot and makes children, and sooner or later, these über-powerful children turn on him and he has to kill them. For example, Abraham was one of his; they had some sort of a spat, and Roland exiled him until Abraham finally died later in poverty. Not exactly the way the Bible tells it, but there you go. Before Roland went into hibernation, he apparently swore off procreation. But after he woke up during the Shift, he must’ve been overcome by the euphoria of being alive. Same reason why people have sex after funerals.
Roland fell in love with a woman called Kalina. She wanted to have children and he apparently was cool with it, until a child was conceived, a daughter, and then Roland decided to pull the plug and to kill her in the womb. Kalina had her own magic, the magic of compulsion, and she was desperate to save her baby. She bewitched Roland’s warlord, Voron, and magicked him into thinking he was in love with her. Together they ran away. Kalina gave birth, but Roland eventually caught up with them. Kalina realized that of the two of them, Voron had the better chance of surviving and raising the baby, so she told him to run and stayed behind to confront Roland. She stabbed him through the eye and he killed her. Not a happy story. So here is Voron, a cold ruthless bastard, a really talented fighter who was supposed to lead Roland’s armies when he got around to taking over our continent, a guy who probably killed hundreds of people to get that good, and now he is alone with this baby.
His brain is permanently cooked by Kalina’s magic. So he looks at this tiny cooing magical baby, the daughter of probably the only woman he ever loved, and he doesn’t say to himself, “At least I have something remaining of her. I’ll raise this child and I’ll do everything in my power to guard her, and protect, and love her, and make sure she has a happy life.” No, he looks at her and he thinks, “I’m going to get even.” Because he is that kind of a cold ruthless bastard. He takes this baby and he hones her and shapes her, until she turns into a living weapon. She can kill you with her sword. She can kill you with a toothpick. She can kill you with her bare hands. I’m a weremongoose.
I’m fucking fast. When I get bored, I play with my pet cobra, and I don’t mean that figuratively. I never get bitten, because I’m fast enough to easily dodge a striking snake. Sometimes when Kate swings her sword, I can’t see it. She’s that fast. So while this little girl is growing up, she and Voron roam all over the Americas. They never stay in one place for long; one month she’s training with someone in Oklahoma, the next she’s in a gladiator pit in Brazil. The entire time he’s telling her how her father killed her mother and how he would kill her if she was ever discovered. All that is true. But Voron also tells her that the only way for her to survive is to kill Roland.
She learns how to end human life before she reaches puberty. The damage that was done to her as a child is staggering. But that’s not the worst thing. Voron set out to make her into a perfect assassin, but he didn’t teach her any magic. He wasn’t a magic user himself, so she learned general magic skills, a little from the witches, a little from the mages, but she didn’t practice the blood magic, the Roland brand of magic—first, because nobody could teach her and second, because Voron thought it would give her away. But there is a third reason. There was no need for it, because Voron knew what Roland was capable of. He knew that Kate’s skill was sufficient for her to cut her way to Roland, but she would have no chance against her father. That was the crux of his revenge. He raised this child from the time she was a baby solely so one day he could watch Roland kill or be killed by his own flesh and blood.
I’ll let that sink in a little bit. He didn’t get a chance to see it for himself. Roland decided he needed a new warlord, so he took Voron’s best pupil, the boy he raised like a son, and made him his warlord. His name is Hugh d’Ambray, or Sick Fuck, which is more fitting. Hugh d’Ambray had been hunting Voron since his betrayal. One day, when Kate was away from the house, Hugh found him and killed him. He claims to be somewhat broken up over it, but you can’t trust a single word that comes out of that lying bastard’s mouth. With Voron dead, Kate was on her own. A knight of the Order of Merciful Aid temporarily assumed guardianship of her and tried to send her to the Order Academy, but she dropped out. The Order is a semiofficial law enforcement agency.
Their legal status is murky, as I’ve pointed out a number of times to anyone who will listen. They are fanatics, they have a rigid mind-set, and they believe that any deviation from your average vanilla Homo sapiens makes you nonhuman. You’ve read what I wrote. Do you think I’m human? To these guys, Charles Manson and Jack the Ripper are more human than I am. If it weren’t for the fact that our police force is overwhelmed, their presence wouldn’t be tolerated. It shouldn’t be tolerated anyway. But, as is typical, when someone comes to you and offers to remove that pesky griffin that’s killing people in your neighborhood and to do it free of charge if you can’t afford to pay, most people refuse to look a gift knight in the mouth. So Kate decided the Order’s brainwashing wasn’t for her. She bummed around Georgia, dropping in and out of Atlanta. Worked for the Mercenary Guild for a while.
They’re the guys you call if you have money and a monster in your backyard, and the cops are too busy with a poisonous flying jellyfish downtown. She tried to hide in plain sight. She might have succeeded except she ran into the Beast Lord. As I mentioned, he is a scary, bossy bastard. She hates all authority. He said, “Jump.” She said, “Screw you.” Of course, they would fall madly in love after that. And when I say madly, I mean it. Kate never does things halfway.
I’m certain that Voron attempted to create a psychopath but somehow he failed. Kate will put herself between danger and some idiot bystanders every single time. She found the half-starved child of an alcoholic on the street, almost died saving her from demons, and then adopted her. Julie is an exceptional child in every way, including the amount of trouble she can generate. She isn’t easy to raise. I’ve never heard Kate complain. Kate counts me as one of her friends. It is a privilege. It means when I’m several states away and I call her and say, “I’m in trouble,” she will get her sword and come to get me, expecting nothing in return. That is a rare thing.
Curran might be the Beast Lord and a stubborn one, but he knew what he had when he met her. That’s why she’s now the Consort of the Pack. We needed a Consort for a long time. Someone to balance out Curran. Then she came along and she is sensible and tries to be fair. Things were going so well for a while. Remember I mentioned panacea, the herbal medicine that helps us to not go loup? Until recently we had no access to it. It was created somewhere in Europe and they wouldn’t sell it to us at any price. Last summer suddenly the Beast Lord and his Consort got an invite to settle a shapeshifter family dispute in a small country on the Black Sea. They would be paid in panacea.
We all knew it was a trap, and we all went to see who was holding the string of the trapdoor. It was Hugh d’Ambray. He’d followed the trail of bread crumbs and found Kate. Here is a woman who had been trained by the man he viewed as his father. She is better with a sword than he is. She is the daughter of the guy he worships. You see where I’m going with this? Hugh wants her and he doesn’t understand “no.” She hates him, because he’s a sick fuck and he killed her sensei. It went weird really fast and ended up in a giant fight and a castle on fire. So here we are.
We didn’t get the panacea, but we got Christopher, an insane mage Kate pulled out of a cage where Hugh was slowly starving him to death. Christopher isn’t all there. Turns out he can make panacea, so now we have our own supply, but the price was high. We lost Aunt B, the alpha of Clan Bouda. The boudas are misfits. Other shapeshifters don’t trust us. We don’t do things by the book. Aunt B took care of us. Of me. Words can’t describe what she meant to me.
She is gone now. Kate watched her die. It eats at her. I can see it in her face. She visits Aunt B’s grave more than her son does, and Raphael is over there every chance he gets. So here we are, at a crossroads. We don’t know if Hugh is alive or dead. Curran had broken Hugh’s spine and hurled him into the fire, but Kate says she felt him teleport out. We know that the days of hiding are over. Roland will come for his daughter.
He’d attacked the Pack before through his agents. He doesn’t like us, because we are growing and gaining in strength. But now, whether Hugh survived or not, Roland is coming for sure. If Hugh is dead, Roland will come to see who killed him. If Hugh’s alive, he will have told Roland about his daughter, and Roland will come to see her. As I said, this is the moment when everything hangs in the balance. If Roland attacks us, we will fight, not just for the Consort, but for our lives, as overly dramatic as it sounds. Roland understands the concept of personal freedom. He just believes it’s highly overrated. Freedom is everything to us.
We won’t be slaves. Kate is our best hope of stopping him, but—there is that pesky word again—she knows her magic can’t match his. The Covens of Atlanta threw their lot in with her and are supplying her with undead blood so she can practice her father’s blood magic. She’s learning, but I’m afraid it’s not fast enough. If Roland takes over Atlanta, other cities will follow. We, the Pack, have the best chance of fighting him off. There is a storm gathering on our horizon. We will make a stand, but I wonder if it will matter in the end.