Magic Stars – Ilona Andrews

DEREK MOVED FAST ON QUIET FEET. The bartender downstairs, a stocky woman with hard eyes and a harder jaw, hadn’t heard him. She just happened to look up as he made his way to the staircase leading to the back rooms. She reached for the shotgun she kept under the bar, then saw his face and changed her mind. The face used to be a problem, but he’d grown used to it. He knew his eyes assured people that the inside matched the outside, and so the bartender turned away and let him walk up the stairs. It was an old wooden staircase, probably pre-Shift, before the magic waves had battered the world and its technological marvels to dust. It must’ve creaked and sung under the weight of humans every day, but the worn steps kept their peace this time. He knew where to put his feet. A short hallway stretched before him, two doors on the right, three doors on the left. Unlit. The owner was trying to save on electricity or the charged-air bill. The rooms were empty, all but one, the second on the left. He paused by the door and listened. On the other side of an inch-thick piece of wood people talked and moved.

Five. All men, drinking and talking in low voices. The draft from under the door brought the odor of cheap beer to his nostrils mixed with the metallic stench of human blood. He’d followed this scent across half the city. People lied. Scents never did. The shadows under the door indicated a single light source. The magic was down. The light leaking through the crack under the door was electric, buttery yellow, and judging by the hallway, the owner was too cheap to spring for anything but a single lightbulb. He reached into the pocket of his jeans with his left hand and pulled out a rock he’d picked up outside.

This didn’t warrant the claws. He took a knife out of its sheath. It was a simple combat knife, fixed blade seven inches long, coated in black epoxy, so it didn’t catch the light. The five men inside heard nothing, their voices still calm. Relaxed. Derek thought back to the house from which he’d come, leaned back, and kicked the door. It splintered, bursting open under the impact of his superhuman strength, and he hurled the rock at the lonely light fixture above the table. Glass shattered, and the room plunged into darkness. His instincts punched a cocktail of hormones into his bloodstream in an electric rush. Darkness blossomed, opening up like a flower, revealing five heartbeats wrapped in scent.

His mind signaled “prey,” propelling him through the darkness toward the first warm body scrambling to pull a gun. Derek sliced across the man’s throat. The knife sank deep, too deep, severing bone. Overkill. He was a little too excited. He spun to the left, dodging a bullet before he saw the starburst of the muzzle flash across the room, grabbed the man in his way, and punched the knife into his chest. The heart ruptured. Derek jerked his knife out and spun away to crouch by the wall. Shots popped, loud in the small room. They were firing blind, panicking.

A heartbeat straight across from him, the man spinning wildly, his gun spitting bullets. Boom, boom, boom . click. He cleared the table between them in a single leap, the impact of his weight knocking the man off his feet. He landed on top of the gunman and severed the carotid and jugular with one fast, precise stroke. The fourth man spun and fired in the direction of the noise, but Derek was already moving, leaping forward in a crouch. He knocked the shooter’s arm aside, sank his knife into the man’s groin, twisted, and dragged it up. The man screamed and went down. Two heartbeats gone, two rapidly fading, one fast and frantic. Someone in the room was still alive.

His nostrils flared. The odor of blood swirled around him, intoxicating, demanding more. More blood; more murder; more living, kicking prey struggling in his fingers; more fresh meat he could bite and rip. He shut the bloodlust off, put the knife on the table, and paused to pinpoint the faint sound of a human being trying to breathe quietly through his mouth. There. He stalked across the room, avoiding puddles of blood cooling on the floor. The man lay flat, hugging the floor. Derek crouched in one fluid motion, locked his hand on the man’s throat, and dragged him up. The man gurgled, writhing in his hand, trying to claw with feeble nails at the arm that held him. One squeeze, one crunch of bones, and it would be over.

Derek dragged him to the back of the room and jerked the thick curtain open. Moonlight spilled onto his captive, enameling his tortured face with blue. White, short dark hair, at least thirty, old enough to know what he had done. A professional criminal. Derek grabbed a chair with his other hand, set it against the window, and slammed the man into it. The thug sagged, desperately trying to suck some air into his lungs. His eyes widened, his pupils so large with fear, their blackness swallowed the irises, leaving only a narrow ring of blue. “I know you,” the thug squeezed out, his voice hoarse. “You’re Derek Gaunt.” Good.

This would go faster. “Six hours ago, the five of you broke into the home of Randall and Melissa Ives.” “They weren’t shapeshifters, I swear. I swear they weren’t.” “You put two shots into Randall in the hallway and left him to bleed out. You killed Melissa in the kitchen, three shots, two to the head, one to the chest.” The man’s eyes bulged. “Then you went upstairs and shot ten-year-old Lucy Ives and her seven-year-old brother Michael. You annihilated the whole family. The question is why?” “They weren’t shapeshifters!” “No, they were human beings.

They were also smiths.” Derek reached over and took the knife from the table. “Melissa Ives made this knife.” He thrust the knife into the man’s stomach and cut a long shallow line from one hip to the other. Blood gushed from the cut. The air smelled sour as the blade slashed the intestines. The man let out a ragged yowl of pain and choked on his own terror. “Why?” Derek asked. “They had a rock.” The man squeezed the words between sharp gasps.

“Some kind of metal rock. Caleb wanted it.” “Caleb Adams?” The man nodded, trembling. “Yes. Him.” Caleb Adams had started out as a witch, but his coven had cast him out. He’d proclaimed himself a warlock, and now he ran a gang on the edge of the Warren. Bordered by South-View Cemetery and Lakewood Park, the Warren had begun as part of the urban renewal project, but magic had hit it hard. It was poor, treacherous, and vicious, a war zone where gangs battled with each other. Caleb Adams felt right at home.

He was violent and power-hungry, and according to the latest street talk, he was defending his new turf against two other gangs and losing. “Where is the rock now?” “We couldn’t find it.” Time for a more detailed conversation. He raised his knife. “We couldn’t find it!” the man cried out. “I swear! We trashed the house looking for it. Rick and Colin shot the guy and his wife, and they both died before we could ask.” “Why did you shoot the children?” “That was Colin. He shot the woman and then ran straight upstairs. He just went nuts.

” He wished he knew which one was Colin. Sadly, he couldn’t kill him again. “What does this rock look like?” “About the size of a big orange. Shiny metal rock. It glows if you take it outside in the moonlight.” The man’s breathing slowed. The bleeding was taking its effect. “Three . ,” he whispered. “Three what?” “Three pieces of a rock.

Rick said the rock had broken . into three chunks. Rick said Caleb already had one and wanted all three. He sent . two crews out. I don’t know where the other crew went. I told you . everything. Don’t kill me.” Derek’s lips stretched into a smile on their own, driven not by humor but by the instinctual need to bare his teeth as the wild inside glared through his eyes.

“There is gunpowder stench on your hand and blood spatter on your shirt. It smells like Michael Ives.” The man froze. Derek smiled wider. “I don’t make deals with child murderers.” THE NIGHT WAS BLUE. The deep sky breathed, as if alive, the small glowing dots of distant stars winking at him as he ran along the night streets. The moon had rolled out and soared, huge and round, spilling a cascade of liquid silver onto the half-ruined city. It called to him the way it called to all wolves. If he didn’t have a job to do, he would’ve run right out of Atlanta into the magic-fed forest beyond, abandoned his human skin for fur and four paws, and sang to it.

His human vocal cords had sustained too much damage in the same fight that had altered his face, but his wolf voice was as good as always. He would soak in that silver glow until it shone from his eyes and sing a long song about hunting and running through the dark wood in the middle of the night. On nights like these he remembered that he was only twenty. But he had someplace to be. Caleb’s five killers hadn’t gone too far from the house they destroyed, barely five miles, so he dropped into an easy run, a four-minute mile at best, and let the night air expand his lungs. The Casino flashed by, a white castle turned green by moonlight. He could just make out the gaunt, inhuman shapes of vampires crawling along its parapets, each undead telepathically driven by a human navigator. He made it a point to kill them when the opportunity presented itself. It didn’t come up too often—vampires belonged to the People, and the People and Kate had an uneasy truce. He didn’t agree with it, but it was necessary.

Sometimes you had to put your personal feelings aside and do what was necessary. A magic wave flooded the world, snuffing out the rare electric lights, and ignited the charged air within the twisted glass tubes of fey lanterns. The magic-fed light was blue and eerie. Power filled him. His muscles turned stronger; his heart pumped more blood with each beat; the scents and sounds sharpened. It was like walking through the world with a translucent plastic hood covering your head and having it suddenly ripped off. The air tasted fresh. Pure joy filled him, and for a brief moment he forgot the slaughtered family, grinned, and just ran. The right street loomed too soon. He leapt, bounced off an oak to make a sharp turn, and dropped into the deep indigo shadows by a house.

His ears caught noises of furniture being knocked around. Someone was rummaging through the Iveses’ home. The neighborhood was too nice for looters. The crashing stopped. He waited for a long moment. Nothing. He was upwind from them. It was possible that they had stopped for their own reasons. It was also possible that they smelled him. Only one way to find out.

Derek straightened and walked toward the house. Three people walked out of the building and spread out on the street, moving with telltale balance. Shapeshifters. Definitely not one of the Beast Lord’s city crews. He knew all of the shapeshifters who worked in the city, and they knew him. These three didn’t look familiar. A Pack city crew would have no business being here anyway. The Iveses were human, and the house sat way past the invisible boundary that carved Atlanta into Pack territory and the rest of the city. The three guys stretched their shoulders. He stayed in the shadows.

They probably couldn’t see his face clearly, not with the hood up, but they had caught his scent and showed no reaction. They had no idea who he was. That left two possibilities: Either they were intruders into Pack territory, in which case they were suicidally stupid, or they were new to the Pack, probably part of the seven-family pack Jim, the Beast Lord, had formally accepted into the Atlanta Pack last month. And here they were, looting a dead family’s house. Jim would just love that. All three were young: late teens, early-twenties. A jackal on the left, the tallest of the three, with a loose mop of red hair. A wolf on the right, compact, light brown hair. He hadn’t thought he recognized the scent at first, but now that he’d sampled it for a while, the wolf did smell faintly familiar. The guy in the middle had the build of a wrestler.

The scent said cat and a large one. The cat leaned back and raised his chin. Long dark hair, big round eyes. Confident. They were about the same age, and the cat was clearly sizing him up. His eyes said he liked to fight and didn’t lose often. There was a first time for everything. “You’re a long way from the Keep,” Derek said. “You stink like blood,” the jackal said. That would be a clue, if you weren’t stupid.

“He smells odd.” The wolf wrinkled his nose, trying to figure out what was under the blood. “Almost like a loup.” He’d heard that one before. Sometimes memories he kept hidden deep under the last six years broke out, and his body reacted. It was the corpse of Lucy Ives that had done it. He’d found his youngest sister just like that, curled into a ball in her own blood. She’d been ten, too. “He isn’t a loup,” the cat said. “Loups can’t stay human.

But he isn’t Pack. If he was, you’d know him. Which means he’s got no business hanging around here.” “Walk away,” Derek said. “What?” The cat squinted. “I can’t hear you, outsider. Maybe we should show him what the Pack does to trespassers.” They were too stupid or too new to know that official Pack policy dictated that uninvited guests were to be politely but firmly directed to visit the Keep or clear out of their territory in three days. The Pack didn’t threaten or intimidate. They didn’t need to.

It was a lesson this dumbass would learn quickly. Pain was an excellent teacher. The Pack had become the largest shapeshifter organization in the country, with the exception of Alaska’s Ice Fury, and it claimed a vast territory, covering the entire states of Georgia and North Carolina, and stretching down to Florida. Unaffiliated shapeshifters weren’t permitted within the Pack borders. They had three days to present themselves to Pack authority and petition for admission to the Pack or be asked to leave. The Pack was strong and many wanted to join, but absorbing the newcomers and settling them into the existing power structure took time. Back when Curran was the Beast Lord and Kate was his Consort, Curran had capped the admission to the Pack. Jim, the current Beast Lord, followed that policy. He didn’t want the Pack to grow too fast, especially not now, since the title of the Beast Lord had changed hands only months ago and his hold on power was still tenuous. For some reason, this particular small pack had been allowed to join.

Right now Derek couldn’t see why. A loud clopping of hooves made them all turn. A rider emerged from the side street. You noticed the horse first. You couldn’t help it. Built like a small draft horse, with powerful hindquarters and a solid body, she had a muscular neck and the stupid hair on the shins that made it hard to see where her hooves were when she kicked you, which she’d tried to do the first time she’d smelled him. The horse itself was black, or rather almost black, spotted with very faint grey dapples, but the leg hair— feathers, he remembered, although why the hell they called it feathers made no sense to him—was white. The mane was white too, ridiculously long, and wavy. It was wavy because the horse’s owner braided it and sometimes put flowers into it. Because she couldn’t get a normal horse.

She had to have a draft version of My Little Pony. “What the hell kind of horse is that?” the jackal asked. “Gypsy horse.” He couldn’t keep the distaste out of his voice. That and the Friesian were the only two horse breeds he recognized, because he had had no choice about learning them. The Gypsy horse moved into the moonlight, carrying her rider without any effort, which wasn’t much of an accomplishment, since the rider was sixteen years old, barely five-and-a-half feet tall, and weighed maybe a hundred and twenty pounds. If she was soaking wet and wearing all her clothes and carrying both of her tomahawks. He opened his mouth and closed it. Julie was wearing a bluish T-shirt with the words Wild Magic stitched on it and a pair of jean shorts. Her long bare legs stood out against the horse’s black hide.

Her blonde hair was pulled back into a ponytail, leaving her long neck exposed. A neck that would be frighteningly easy to snap even for a normal human. The cat was checking her out. She was a kid. He was looking at her like she was dessert. Nothing good was going through his head. Derek bit off the words, fighting a snarl. “What the fuck are you looking at?” The cat grinned, baring his teeth. “Bonus.” So that was the cat’s plan: Kill him and get Julie.

Good plan. If Derek had both hands tied behind his back and his feet chained to the ground. Julie waved at him and winked at the three shapeshifters. “You shouldn’t corner Big Bad Wolves like him on a dark street. It’s bad for your health.” “What the hell are you doing here?” he growled. She shouldn’t be here. Not in the middle of the night and not in front of this house. He didn’t want to tell her what had happened in the house. “I’m working,” she said.

“Why are you dressed like that?” Her eyes narrowed. “Dressed like what?” “That.” “There is nothing wrong with the way she’s dressed.” The cat smirked, flashing white teeth. “I like it.” Laugh it up while you can. “Shut up. If I decide to ask for your opinion, I’ll say, ‘Hey dickhead,’ so you don’t get confused.” The cat snarled back. “What the hell makes you think you can tell me what to do?” Julie sighed.

“Look, I don’t have time for one of your man things, where you stand around and insult each other. The city has a Guardian, and I’m her Herald. I have a task, and you’re between me and my destination. Clear your asses out of here or be destroyed.” “What the actual fuck is going on here?” the jackal asked. That was about enough of it. Derek stepped forward, moving out of the shadows into the moonlight. The cat’s eyebrows crept up. “What the hell happened to your face?” “Oh shit.” The wolf raised his hands, backed away, and sat down on the ground.

“I submit. I meant no offense. Tell Curran I meant no offense.” The cat and the jackal stared at him. “What’s your problem?” the jackal asked. “That’s the Beast Lord’s Wolf.” The wolf raised his hands palms out. “And that’s the Beast Lord’s daughter. I’m out.” “I’ve seen the Beast Lord,” the cat said.

“He’s black, his mate is Asian, and they don’t have kids.” “Not that Beast Lord, you moron,” the wolf said. “The first one. The ex-Beast Lord.” “Wait,” the jackal said. “There is another Beast Lord?” They were idiots. He was about to fight two idiots. “You can’t challenge him,” the wolf said. “The hell I can’t.” The cat bared his teeth.

“If you fight him, it’s to the death,” the wolf warned. “I don’t care.” “Tooooooday.” Julie drew the word out. “I’ll fucking kill you!” the cat declared. “I’ll rip your throat out and feed it to you.” Yes, he’d never heard that one before. Julie sighed again and glanced at him. “This is taking way too long. That was a declaration of murderous intent.

We’re clear. The big one is yours; I’ll take the ginger.” They moved at the same time. He was a shapeshifter and she was human, so he won the race. But, he reflected, sprinting toward the cat as one of her tomahawks hurtled through the air and sliced into the jackal’s chest, the gap between their reaction time was getting uncomfortably short, and not because he was slowing down. In front of him, the cat’s human skin tore. The cascade of pheromones hit Derek, the chemical catastrophe of magic that signaled the change from human to an animal. The cat hopped back, buying time as his body split, bones shooting up, flesh spiraling up the new bigger, thicker limbs, and golden fur sprouted over it, packed with dense dark rosettes. A leopard. That’s why all the smirking.

A big cat against a wolf was usually a done deal. Especially a big cat who could maintain the warrior form, a meld of beast and human. The wereleopard landed upright on huge paws, claws out, hulking. Big jaws. At least a hundred and fifty pounds heavier, and that weight was muscle and bone. Stupid stance, though, arms out. Very little or no training. Probably relied on his strength, speed, and size. It wouldn’t be enough this time. He was well within his rights to kill the leopard.

Derek belonged to Curran, who had formally retired from the Pack, taking his people with him, which put him outside of Pack structure. He had no position within the Pack’s hierarchy. The only thing Derek could be challenged for was his life, and Pack law said he could end his attacker without fear of retribution. The cat swiped at him. Derek ducked under the slice, but the claws grazed his shoulder in a burning flash of pain. The scent of his own blood lashed him. Fast bastard. Derek carved a long gash across the cat’s ribs as he darted under, spun around, and sank a solid kick into the small of the cat’s back. The cat’s spine crunched. The wereleopard leapt away and spun around, golden eyes glowing.

If he killed the leopard, the relationship between the newcomers and the Pack would be strained. Jim would be pissed. He needed a few seconds to figure out if he gave a damn. On the left the jackal launched himself into a spectacular jump, aiming for Julie on her horse. He hurtled through the air, eyes wide, mouth open. She tossed a handful of yellow powder into his face. The reek of wolfsbane streaked through the street. His eyes watered. The jackal collapsed on the ground. The cat leaped at Derek, going high, claws of his right paw raised for the kill.

Once you were airborne, there was no way to change the direction. Derek let go of the knife, sidestepped to the left, grabbed the cat’s right forearm with his right hand as the wereleopard flew by, and drove his left hand into the cat’s right thigh, channeling all the power and momentum of the wereleopard’s leap into a flip. The cat practically flipped himself. The wereleopard’s back slapped the ground. The air burst out of his lungs. Derek dropped down, swiped his knife off the pavement, and buried it in the cat’s gut. Sour stench wafted up into his nostrils. The cat snarled and swiped at him. The big claws tore at his chest, shredding his T-shirt. Derek broke free.

The cat jerked up, lighting quick, and turned into a whirlwind of claws. Derek dodged, backing away, noting each graze that stung his shoulders. The leopard chased him, eyes mad, pupils so wide the gold of his irises had shrunk to a thin ring. When the cats snapped like this, there was no fighting them. You had to block what you could until you got some distance. “I kirrl you!” the cat yowled. Speaking in warrior form indicated real talent. That’s why the small pack had been allowed to join. Jim had plans for the leopard. A cut.

The cat was swinging wildly, his response sharpened by the wound in his stomach. Derek had been like that, too, years ago, until he learned to register the pain without it feeding his anger. If he killed the cat, Jim would be pissed off, but more importantly, Curran would regret the waste of talent. The Pack still mattered to him, even if he said it didn’t. Another cut stung his left shoulder. The cat had little training but good instincts. The trouble with instincts is that they can be used against you. Derek rolled down onto his back, bending his knees and bringing up his feet. The leopard lunged at him without thinking, reacting to the falling prey. Derek kicked, ramming his feet into the cat’s furry stomach, reopening the freshly sealed gash.

The big shapeshifter hurtled over his head. Derek flipped onto his stomach and into a crouch, the movement practiced so many times, he didn’t even have to think about it. The cat was scrambling to his feet. He was fast, but nobody had taught him how to fall. It cost him a precious half a second. You could do a lot with half a second. Derek spun, picking up power, and snapped a roundhouse kick to the leopard’s head just as the big cat finally rose. His lower shin connected, the powerful muscles of his thigh delivering hundreds of pounds of force to the leopard’s ear and temple. It would’ve burst the eardrum and cracked the skull of a human, causing an incapacitating concussion. The leopard swayed, still snarling, his swipes sluggish.

Derek lunged forward, dodged the claws, and smashed the heel of his right hand into the leopard’s left shoulder, shoving him back just as he kicked the leopard’s calves, sweeping his legs from under him. The big cat crashed down, his head bouncing off the pavement. Derek followed, hammering punches onto the cat’s face. One, two, three. He’d broken baseball bats with a punch before. Five, six. “You’re going to kill him,” Julie warned. “No.” But he won’t be smiling at any girls for the next three months. “Derek?” “Yes?” One more. Suddenly he was aware of her standing next to him. A metal chain dangled in his view. The cat’s body deflated. The fur melted back into human skin. His face looked like raw hamburger. By morning the skin would be back to normal. The broken jaw and the three teeth he’d knocked out would take a couple of months to heal and grow back. Julie shook the handcuffs at him. “Fine.” He took the handcuffs, flipped the woozy cat over, pulled his arms over, and locked them on the cat’s now-human wrists. The handcuffs were a shapeshifter edition: Each band was lined with silver spikes. Trying to snap the chain by pulling the cuffs apart drove the spikes into the skin. Silver burned like fire. He was sure the cat would stay put. Derek tilted his head. The jackal lay on his back in a puddle of his own blood, trussed up like a hog, wrists and ankles tied together. The wound on his chest looked deep, but Julie had missed the heart. Knowing her, on purpose. He would heal. Derek tilted his head and looked at the remaining wolf. He knew his eyes glowed, reflecting the moonlight. “We were at a bar,” the wolf said. “Eli and Nathan are new to the city, so I took them to the Steel Horse. A guy came up to us and asked if we were up for making a quick five hundred bucks.” There was no such thing as a quick $500, especially not in Atlanta after dark. “He gave us the address of this house. We’re supposed to go in and sniff out a rock.” The wolf lifted his hands, holding them apart, fingers almost touching. “About this big. Glows in the moonlight. We went into the house and smelled the blood. We were trying to decide what to do when you showed up.” “Four hours ago someone killed the human family who lived in this house for that rock,” Derek said. “Husband, wife, two kids.” “I didn’t know,” the wolf said, his voice pleading. “I swear I didn’t know. You’ve got to believe me.” Julie squinted at the house. “Is that the Iveses’ house?”

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