Magic Mourns – Ilona Andrews

I sat in a small, drab office, one of many in the Atlanta chapter of the Order of Knights of Merciful Aid, and pretended to be Kate Daniels. Kate’s phone didn’t ring very often, so I didn’t have to pretend very hard. Unfortunately, when it did ring, like right now, the person on the other end was rarely interested in a facsimile. They wanted the real thing. “Order of Knights of Merciful Aid, Andrea Nash speaking.” A female voice on the other end murmured hesitantly. “You’re not Kate.” “No, I’m not. She’s on medical leave. But I’m filling in for her.” “I’ll just wait until she comes back.” I said good-bye to the disconnect signal, hung up, and petted my SIG-Sauer P226s lying on Kate’s desk. At least my guns still liked me. The real Kate Daniels, my best friend and partner in butt-kicking, was on medical leave. And I intended to do my best to let her stay on medical leave, at least until her wounds stopped bleeding.

The magic wave fell. The mysterious orange and yellow glyphs on the floor of Kate’s office faded. On the wall, the charged air inside twisted glass tubes of a feylantern turned dark, while the ugly warts of electric lights in the hallway ceiling ignited with soft light. Inside my skin, the secret me stretched, yawned, and curled up for a nap, with her claws securely tucked away. We lived in an uncertain world: magic flooded us in waves, screwed things up, and vanished. Nobody could predict when it came and went. One always had to be prepared. Sometimes though, no matter how prepared you were, the magic left something behind that you simply couldn’t handle, and then you called the police, and if they couldn’t help, you called the Order. The Order would send a knight, someone like me, who would help you with your magic problems. At least, that’s how it was supposed to work.

Very few people could have expertise in both tech and magic. Kate chose magic. I chose tech. Give me a firearm and silver bullets over swords and sorcery any day. The phone rang again. “Order of Knights of Merciful Aid, Andrea—” “Can I speak to Kate?” An older male voice tinted with country accent. “I’m filling in for her. What do you need?” “Can you take a message for her? Tell ’er this is Teddy Jo callin’ down from Joshua Junkyards. She knows me. Tell her I was drivin’ on through Buzzard, and I saw one of them fellers she hangs out with, the shapeshifters, run like hell through the Scratches.

Right below me. There was a big dog chasin’ him.” “How big was the dog?” Teddy Jo mulled it over. “I’d say as big as a house. A one-story. Maybe a bit bigger. Not as big as one of them colonials, you understand. A regular-person house.” “Would you say the shapeshifter was in distress?” “Hell yeah, he was in distress. His tail was on fire.

” “He ran like his tail was on fire?” “No, his tail was on fire. Like a big, furry candle on his ass.” Bingo. Green five, shapeshifter in dire distress. “Got it.” “Well, you tell Kate I said hello and not to be a stranger and all that.” He hung up. I grabbed my gun belt and sent a focused thought in the direction of Maxine, the Order’s secretary. I had no telepathic abilities whatsoever, but she was strong enough to pick up a thought if I concentrated hard enough. “Maxine, I have a green five in progress.

I’m responding.” “You have fun, dear. I hope you get to kill something,” Maxine’s voice said in my head. “By the way, do you recall that nice young man whose calls you aren’t taking?” Raphael. He wasn’t exactly the type of man a woman would forget. “What about him?” “He usually calls for you twice a day, at ten and at two. He hasn’t phoned today. At all.” I killed a twinge of disappointment. “Perhaps he got the message.

” “Could be. Just thought you would like to be aware.” “Thanks.” Raphael was trouble. And I had enough trouble as it was. I picked up my favorite pair of P226s and ducked into the armory, where I kept my assortment of guns. As big as a house, huh? I took my Weatherby Mark V rifle off the rack, petting the handlaminated fiberglass-and-Kevlar stock. A classic. When you absolutely have to have a job done correctly, use the best tool for it. There was only one weapon with more stopping power in the armory.

Referred to as Big Unit by male knights, and Boom Baby by me, it sat in a glass case all by itself. Boom Baby ate Silver Hawks: .50 armor-piercing, incendiary, explosive, silver-load cartridges. To get Boom Baby out of its case, I’d have to show a lot of probable cause. That was fine with me. The Weatherby would more than do the job. I grabbed .416 Remington Magnum cartridges and headed out the door, before somebody decided to stop me. In our age, a woman could have a gasoline car, which worked only during tech, or a vehicle that ran on charged water, which worked only during magic. My Jeep was Order issue and equipped with an electric engine and a magic one, so it functioned during both tech and magic.

Unfortunately, it didn’t function very well. The engine started on the fourth try. I hopped in and steered out of the parking lot, joining a steady stream of riders and carts heading west. Mine was the only hoof-free transport on the street. The rest consisted of horses, mules, donkeys, and oxen. The city lay in ruins. Heaps of dusty rubble and small mountains of broken glass marked the locations of once stately office buildings, ground to dust by magic’s relentless jaws. Atlanta grew around them. New apartment buildings, built by hand rather than machine, sprouted atop the carcasses of the old ones. Stone and wood bridges spanned the gaping drops of crumbled overpasses.

Small stalls and open markets replaced Wal-Mart and Kroger. The old Atlanta might have fallen like the trunk of a great tree struck by lightning, but its roots were too strong to die. I liked the city. I wasn’t born here, nor did I come to Atlanta by choice, but now the city was my territory. I had walked its streets, sampled its scents, and listened to it breathe. Atlanta wasn’t sure about me. It tried to kill me every now and then, but I was confident we’d come to an understanding eventually. Forty minutes later I turned off the main road on James Jackson Parkway and followed it around the bend to Buzzard’s Highway. When magic was up, it flooded deep in this part of the city. Tall trees flanked the road, huge pines and dogwoods, still green despite the impending October.

A twisted metal sign slid by: the white letters spelling out SOUTH COBB DRIVE, all but covered by BUZZARD scrawled in black paint. Pale wind chimes, made of turkey vulture skulls and string, hung from the tree limbs overshadowing the road. A cheerful welcome. Not quite sure what they were trying to tell me. My goodness, could it be some sort of a warning? My Jeep slid onto an old bridge over the Chattahoochee River. The old maps claimed that heading north would bring me into Smyrna and turning southwest would deliver me to Mableton, but neither any longer existed. I crossed the bridge and pulled over to the side of the road. A vast network of ravines lay before me. Narrow, twisted, some a hundred yards deep, although most were shallow, they tangled together and veered apart, like tunnels of a giant dirt-eating termite. Here and there remnants of the old buildings perched, halfway down the slopes, flanked by sickly brush.

A highway cut through the ravines, running atop the cliff tops, interrupted with wooden patches of bridges. Above it all, blackwinged vultures glided on the aerial currents. The locals called it the Scratches, because from above the place looked like a giant buzzard had scratched in the dirt. The Scratches came into being after the very first flare, when the magic returned to the world in a three-day wave of disasters and death. With every magic wave, the ravines grew a little deeper. Far to the south, the Scratches united into a gorge that eventually became Honeycomb Gap, another hellish magic spot. The highway itself served as the favorite drag-racing spot for idiot juvenile delinquents. Somewhere in this mess of soil and air was my green five, the shapeshifter in distress. Hopefully still alive and nursing a singed tail. Atlanta housed one of the largest shapeshifter societies in the country.

The Pack, as it was known, counted over fifteen hundred members, subdivided into seven clans according to their animal forms. An alpha couple ruled each clan. The fourteen alphas made Pack Council, presided over by Curran, the Beast Lord of Atlanta. Curran wielded unbelievable power and ultimate authority. He was the Alpha. To understand the Pack, one had to understand the shapeshifters. Caught on the crossroads between animal and human, they could give in to either one. Those who surrendered to the animal side began the catastrophic descent into delirium. They reveled in perversion and cruelty and gorged themselves on human flesh, raping and murdering until people like me put them down like rabid dogs. They were called loups, and they were killed as soon as they were discovered.

To remain human, a shapeshifter had to live his life according to a very strict mental regimen detailed in the Code, a book of rules, which praised discipline, loyalty, obedience, and restraint. A shapeshifter knew no higher calling than to serve the Pack, and Curran and his Council took the idea of service a step further. All shapeshifters underwent martial arts training, both as individuals and in squads. All learned to channel their aggression, to handle being shot with silver bullets, to use weapons and firearms. Coupled with their numbers, their strict discipline, and their high degree of organization, having the Pack in the city was like living next to a thousand and a half highly skilled professional killers with enhanced senses, preternatural strength, and power of regeneration. The Order found the Pack’s presence very troubling. The shapeshifters didn’t trust the Order, and rightfully so—the knights viewed each shapeshifter as a monster waiting to happen. So far Kate was the only agent of the Order who had managed to earn their trust, and they preferred to deal exclusively through her. Getting a shapeshifter out of a bind would go a long way toward improving my standing with both organizations. At least on paper.

I put the parking brake on and walked upwind from the Jeep. Hard to smell anything with the exhaust fumes searing the inside of my nose. Teddy Jo had probably exaggerated the dog’s size— eyewitnesses usually did—but even if it was as large as a “regular-person house,” finding it in the labyrinth of the ravines would prove tricky. The highway didn’t just run straight. It veered and split into smaller roads, half of which led nowhere; the other half ended up rejoining Buzzard. I crouched on the edge of the ravine and let the air currents tell me a story. A touch of sickeningly sweet rot of decomposing flesh and the odd, slightly oily stink of vultures eating it. Twin musk of two feral cats enjoying a bit of competitive spraying over each other’s marks. A harsh bitterness of a distant skunk. The scent of burning matches.

I paused. Sulfur dioxide. Quite a bit of it, too. It was the only scent that didn’t fit the usual odors of animal life. I returned to the Jeep and followed the matches north. There were times when my secret self came in handy. The stench of burning sulfur grew stronger. A low growl rolled through the ravine below, dissolving into heavy wet panting, followed by a frustrated layered yelp, as if several dogs had whined in unison. I guided the Jeep along the edge of the ravine and peered down. Nothing.

No giant dogs, just a shallow twenty-five-foot gap with a bit of scarce shrubs and trash at the bottom. A broken rusted fridge. The remains of a couch. Multicolored dirt-stained rags. A house had apparently thrown up down the slope and now perched in a ruined heap on the edge, where the ravine veered left. An excited snarl rumbled through the Scratches, the deep primeval sound of an enormous beast giving chase. The hairs on the back of my neck rose. I stood on the brakes, swiped the Weatherby from the seat, and jumped out, taking position on the edge. A shaggy shape exploded from around the bend of the ravine. Saffron-colored with a sprinkling of dark spots on its sloped back, the animal flew over the refuse, the muscles of its powerful forequarters pumping hard.

A bouda. Shit. The werehyena saw me. A cackle of trilling terrified laughter exploded from its muzzle. Please don’t be Raphael. Please don’t be Raphael. Please . The bouda veered toward me, changing in midleap. Its body snapped, twisting like a broken doll. Bones thrust out of the flesh, muscles sliding up the new powerful limbs, a carved chest, and a humanoid torso.

The beast’s jaws exploded, growing disproportionately large, its face flattened into a grotesque semblance of human, its forepaws stretched into hands that could enclose my entire head. A bouda in a warrior form, a monster halfway between hyena and man. For a shapeshifter, to assume this form was a victory, to make it proportional was an achievement, and to speak in one was an art. The werehyena’s jaws gaped open, displaying three-inch fangs. A bloodcurdling scream ripped from him. “Drive away, Andrea! Drive!” Raphael. Damn it. “Don’t panic.” I sighted the bend through the scope. “I have it under control.

” A thing that sent a bouda in warrior form running, especially one as crazy and lethal as Raphael, had to be treated with respect. Fortunately, the Weatherby delivered respect in a Magnum cartridge. It would stop a rhino at full gallop. It sure as hell would handle an oversized dog. The ground shook as if from blows of a giant hammer. The refuse on the ravine’s floor jumped in place. A colossal thing burst from around the bend, nearly level with the ravine’s wall. Blood-red and massive, it slid on the trash and crashed into the curve. The impact shook the slope. The remnants of a house quaked and slid down in a shower of bricks, bouncing from the creature’s three canine heads.

A twenty-foot-tall three-headed dog. Whoa. This was quite possibly the coolest thing I’d ever seen through the scope of a rifle. The dog shook, flinging rubble from his fur. Thick, deep-chested, built like an Italian mastiff, it gripped the ground with four massive paws and charged after Raphael. Behind it a long whiplike tail lashed, the barb on its end shaped like a snake’s head. The mouths of its three heads hung open, displaying gleaming fangs longer than my forearm. Three forked serpentine tongues hung out as it thundered to us, flinging foam from between the horrid teeth. The drops of drool, each big enough to fill a bucket, ignited in midair. It was built too thickly.

The bullet might not penetrate. However, I didn’t need to kill it. I just had to delay it long enough for the knucklehead to reach me. I sighted the muzzle of the center head. The nose shot would deliver maximum pain. “Run, damn you!” Raphael howled, scrambling up the slope toward me. “There’s no need to scream.” Excitement buoyed me, the ancient thrill of a hunter sighting his prey. The beast’s dark nose danced in my scope. Steady.

Aim. Breathe. You have time. A triple snarl ripped from three huge maws. Gently, slowly, I squeezed the trigger. The Weatherby spat thunder. The recoil punched me in the shoulder. The dog’s middle head jerked. The Weatherby’s magazine held two rounds and one in the chamber. I sighted and fired again.

The middle head drooped. The beast yowled and spun in pain. Perfect. The Weatherby wins again. In a desperate leap, Raphael launched himself up the slope toward me. I caught his arm and hauled him up. We dashed to the Jeep. I hopped into the driver’s seat, Raphael landed in the passenger’s, and I floored the gas pedal. A howl of pure frustration shook the highway. In the rearview mirror the dog sailed out of the ravine as if it had wings and landed on the road behind us.

“Faster!” Raphael snarled. I drove, squeezing every last drop out of the Jeep’s old engine. We hurtled down the highway at a breakneck speed. The dog gave chase with a triumphant howl that shook the ground beneath the car wheels. It closed the space between us in three great bounds and bent down over the car, its mouths opened wide. The foul, corrosive breath washed over me. Raphael jumped up and snarled back, his hackles up. Burning drool hit the backseat, singeing the upholstery in an acrid stench of melted synthetics. I swerved, taking a sudden turn onto a wooden bridge and almost sending the Jeep off the edge into a gap. Monstrous teeth snapped a foot from the backseat.

The dog snarled. In the rearview mirror I saw its muscles bunch as it gathered itself for a leap. Before me, Buzzard’s Highway ran straight and narrow, ravines on both sides. Nowhere to go. That’s it, we’re done. Inside me, an animal raked at my flesh, trying to spill out of my skin. I clenched my teeth and stayed human. The dog jumped. Its huge body flew toward us and then jerked back, as if an invisible leash had snapped, reaching its full length. The giant canine fell, its paws waving clumsily in the air.

In the rearview mirror I saw it rise. Its bark rang through the Scratches. The dog barked again, whined, and jumped back into the ravine. I slowed to a speed that would let me make a turn without sending us to a fiery death in the gap below. “You! Explain!” In the seat next to me Raphael shuddered. Fur melted into smooth human skin, stretched taut over a heartbreakingly beautiful body. Coal-black hair spilled from his head to his shoulders. He looked at me with smoldering blue eyes, smiled, and passed out. “Raphael?” Out cold. With magic down, changing shape took a lot of effort and combined with the strain of that run, Lyc-V, the shapeshifter virus, had shut him down for a rest.

I growled under my breath. Of course, he could’ve stayed conscious had he not changed into a human. But he knew that if he shifted shape, he would pass out on the seat next to me, nude, and I would be forced to stare at him until he slept it off. He had done it on purpose. The werehyena Casanova strikes again. I was getting really tired of his ridiculous pursuit. Ten minutes later I pulled into an abandoned Shell station and parked under the concrete roof shielding the pumps. I hugged my rifle and listened. No snarls. No growling.

We were in the clear. My heart hammered. I tasted a bitter patina on my tongue and squeezed my eyes shut. A delayed reaction to stress, nothing more. Inside, my secret self danced and screamed in frustration. I chained it. Control. In the end it was all about control. I had learned to impose my will over my body in childhood—it was that or death— and years of mental conditioning in the Order’s Academy had reinforced my hold. Breathe.

Another breath. Calm. Gradually the bestial part of me settled down. That’s it. Relax. Good. All shapeshifters struggled with their inner beast. Unfortunately, I wasn’t an ordinary shapeshifter. My problems were a lot more complicated. And the presence of Raphael only aggravated them.

Raphael sprawled next to me, snoring slightly. Until he awoke, speculating on why a giant threeheaded dog with burning drool had chased after him would be pointless. Look at him. Napping without a care in the world, confident I would be watching him. And I was. I had met handsome men in my life, some born with classically perfect features and the physique of Michelangelo’s David. Raphael was not one of these men, and yet he left them all in the dust. He had his good qualities: the bronze skin, the masculine jaw, the wide sensuous mouth. But his face was too narrow. His nose was too long.

And yet when he looked at women with those dark blue eyes, they lost all common sense and threw themselves at him. His face was so interesting and so . carnal. There was no other word for it. Raphael was all tightly controlled, virile sensuality, heat simmering just beneath the surface of his dusky skin. And his body took my breath away. He was built lean, with crisp definition, proportionate and perfect with wide chest, narrow hips, and long limbs. My gaze drifted down to between his legs. And hung like a horse. He had been kind to me, more kind than I probably deserved.

The first time, when my body betrayed me, he and his mother, Aunt B, saved my life by guiding me back into my shape. The second time, when my back was pierced by silver spikes, he held me and talked me through pushing them out of my body. When I thought back to those moments, I sensed tenderness in him and I wanted very badly to believe it was genuine. Unfortunately, he was also a bouda. They had a saying about werehyenas: fourteen to eighty, blind, crippled, crazy. Boudas would screw anything. I had witnessed it firsthand. Monogamy wasn’t in their vocabulary. Raphael had seen the true me and he’d never come across anyone similar. To him I was the TWTIHFB.

That Weird Thing I Haven’t Fucked Before. The more I thought about it, the madder I got. He could speak in a warrior form just fine. Had he stayed awake, I would’ve gotten the whole explanation from him by now. Not to mention that if something attacked us, I’d be left to defend a limp man who outweighed me by about eighty pounds. What exactly was I supposed to do with him? Did he expect me to sigh heavily while admiring his naked body? Or perhaps I was supposed to take advantage of the situation? I reached into the glove compartment and got out a Sharpie. Taking advantage of the situation didn’t sound bad at all. An hour later Raphael stretched and opened his eyes. His lips stretched in an easy smile. “Hey.

Now that’s a beautiful sight to wake up to.” I leveled my SIG-Sauer at him. “Tell me why the nice puppy was chasing you.” He wrinkled his nose and touched his mouth. “Is there something on my lips?” Yes, there is. “Raphael, concentrate! I know it’s hard for you but do try to stay on target. Explain the dog.” He licked his lips and my thoughts went south. Andrea, concentrate! Try to stay on target. Raphael remembered to look cool and leaned back, presenting me with the view of a spectacular chest.

“It’s complicated.” “Try me. First, what are you even doing here? Aren’t you supposed to dragging around giant rocks right now?” About six weeks ago, the lot of us had entered the Midnight Games, an illegal, to-thedeath fighting tournament. We did it to prevent a war against the Pack. Both the Order and Curran, the Beast Lord, took a rather dim view of this occurrence. As a result, Kate was on medical leave, and the Beast Lord, who had actually ended up participating in the tournament with us, had sentenced himself and the rest of the involved shapeshifters to several weeks of hard labor building an addition to the Pack’s citadel. “Curran released me due to family hardship,” Raphael said. Not good. “What happened?” “My mother’s mate died.” My heart jumped.

Aunt B was . she was kind. She saved my life once and she kept my secret to herself. I owed her everything. And even if I hadn’t, I felt nothing but respect for her. Among boudas, as in nature among hyenas, the females ruled. They were more aggressive, more cruel, and more alpha. Aunt B was all that, but she was also fair and smart and she didn’t tolerate any nonsense. When you’re the alpha of a bouda clan, you have a lot of nonsense thrown at you. Had I grown up under Aunt B instead of the bitches who ruled my childhood, perhaps I wouldn’t be so messed up.

“I’m so sorry.” “Thank you,” Raphael said and looked away. “How is she holding up?” “Not that well. He was a very nice man. I liked him.” “What happened?” “Heart attack. It was quick.”

.

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