The pain spread from my hips into my whole body, pulling my bones apart. I grit my teeth. It twisted me until I thought I would break and then let go. I slumped back into the water.
Andrea dabbed my face with a cool rag. “Almost there.”
Curran squeezed my hand. I squeezed back.
Above us the ceiling of the cavern reflected the shiny water patterns. Pretty…
“Stay with us,” Doolittle told me.
I could just close my eyes for a minute. Just for one minute. I was so tired.
“Does it always take this long?” my aunt snapped.
“Sometimes,” Evdokia said, her hand on my stomach.
“It never took that long for me.”
“Each woman is different,” Andrea told her.
A contraction gripped me. I grit my teeth. It felt like my bones split open. It passed and I slumped back down.
“It’s been sixteen hours,” my aunt snarled. “She’s exhausted and hurting. Do something. Give her some of those pills your civilization likes so much.”
“She can’t have any pills,” Evdokia said, her voice calm. “It’s too late. The baby is coming.”
“Give her the pills or I’ll kill you, witch.”
“If you give her anything, it will hurt the baby,” Andrea said.
The baby. I snapped out of the fog back to reality. We were in Witch Forest, inside the cavern with the magic spring. I could feel the covens working outside. They had sheathed the cavern in a blanket of impenetrable magic. As long as it held, my father wouldn’t find us. At least that was the idea.
Around me the water of the magic spring splashed. I lay in the smooth hollow of the stone, my head raised, my feet facing the pool of water. Evdokia stood between my legs, up to her hips in the water. Doolittle waited on my right. There were too many people here.
Another spasm gripped me. The pain tore at me.
“Push,” Doolittle said. “Push. Just like that, good… Good.”
“You’ve got this,” Curran told me. “Come on, baby.”
I gripped his hand and pushed. A blinding pulse of agony shot through me and then suddenly it was easier.
“One more,” Doolittle said.
“Push,” Evdokia urged. “You can do it.”
“Push. One more.”
There was no more to be had, but somehow I found some, pushed again and suddenly my body felt so light. The pain spread through me, hot and almost comforting. I blinked.
“Congratulations!” Evdokia raised something out of the water and I saw my son. He was red and wrinkled, with a shock of hair, and he was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. He took a deep breath and screamed.
Curran grinned at me. “You did it, baby.”
My aunt glided into the water, a translucent shadow. Evdokia held my son up to her and Erra took him, holding him up by pure magic coursing through her ghostly arms. A pulse of power shot through her and into the baby. For a second, my son glowed.
“The blood bred true.” Pride vibrated in Erra’s voice. “Behold the Prince of Shinar and know he is perfect!”
Magic burst above us. I felt it even through the barrier, aimed at the witches’ shield like a needle. My father was coming.
My aunt broke apart into a cloud of pure glowing magic. The cloud swirled around my son. He floated in the cocoon of Erra’s power, shielded by her essence.
The needle of my father’s magic smashed into the witch barrier. For a torturous fraction of a second it held, but the needle burrowed, pushing harder and harder. A moment and he would be through.
He would not get our son.
Power tore out of me in a focused torrent of pain. I sank every ounce of strength into it. My power met the invading magic. The water of the lake rose in long strands and hung suspended in the air above the dry lake bed.
Words of power slid from my lips. “Not today. Not ever.”
We struggled, the magic vibrating between us, the currents of power coursing and twisting as if alive.
The needle pushed, the weight of Roland’s full might behind it.
I screamed and there was no pain in my voice, only rage. Magic flooded into me, the land giving me the reserve I needed, and I sent it against my father.
The needle shattered.
The water collapsed back into the cavern’s lake.
I slumped back. My father failed.
I was done. I was so done.
Curran jumped into the water. Erra released our son, and Curran caught him. My aunt reformed. Something passed between her and Curran, an odd look, but I was too tired to care.
Curran laid our baby on my chest. I hugged him to me. He was so tiny. So tiny. A life Curran and I made together.
Curran wrapped his hands around me, lifting both of us to him.
“Name the child,” Erra said.
“Conlan Dilmun Lennart,” I said. The first name belonged to Curran’s father. The second came from Erra. It was a name of an ancient kingdom and she said it would protect him.
Conlan Dilmun Lennart squirmed on my chest and cried. There was no better sound in the world.
Thirteen months later
A thud jerked me awake. I was up and moving, my sword in my hand, before my brain processed that I was now standing.
I paused, Sarrat raised.
A thin sliver of watery, predawn light broke through the gap between the curtains. The magic was up. On my left, in the little nursery Curran sectioned off from our bedroom, Conlan stood in his crib, wide-awake.
The room was empty except for me and my son.
Someone pounded on my front door. The clock on the wall told me it was ten till seven. We kept shapeshifters hours, late to bed, late to rise. Everyone I knew was aware of that.
“Uh-oh!” Conlan said.
Uh-oh is right. “Wait for me,” I whispered. “Mommy has to take care of something.”
I ran out of the bedroom, moving fast and quiet, and shut the door behind me.
Hold your horses, I’m coming. And then you’ll have some explaining to do.
It took me two seconds to clear the long staircase leading from the third floor to the reinforced front door. I grabbed the lever, slid it sideways, and lowered the metal flap covering the small window. Teddy Jo’s brown eyes stared back at me.
“What the hell are you doing here? Do you know what time it is?”
“Open the door, Kate,” Teddy Jo breathed. “It’s an emergency.”
It was always an emergency. My whole life was one long chain of emergencies. I unbarred the door and pulled it open. He charged in past me. His hair stuck out from his head, windblown. His face was bloodless, and his eyes wild. He’d flown here at top speed.
A sinking feeling tugged at my stomach. Teddy Jo was Thanatos, the Greek angel of death. Freaking him out took a lot of doing. I thought it had been too quiet lately.
I shut the door and locked it.
“I need help,” he said.
“Is anybody in danger right now?”
“They’re dead. They’re all dead.”
Whatever happened had already happened.
“I need you to come and see this,” he said.
“Can you explain what it is?”
“No.” He grabbed my hand. “I need you to come right now.”
I looked at his hand on mine. He let go.
I walked into the kitchen, took a pitcher of iced tea out of the fridge, and poured him a tall glass. “Drink this and try to calm down. I’m going to get dressed and find a baby sitter for Conlan, and then we’ll go.”
He took the glass. The tea trembled.
I ran upstairs, opened the door, and nearly collided with my son. Conlan grinned at me. He had my dark hair and Curran’s grey eyes. He also had Curran’s sense of humor, which was driving me crazy. Conlan started walking early, at ten months, which was typical of shapeshifter children, and now he was running at full speed. His favorite games included running away from me, hiding under various pieces of furniture, and knocking stuff off horizontal surfaces. Bonus points if the object broke.
“Mommy has to go work.” I pulled off the long T-shirt I used as a night gown and grabbed a sports bra.
“Mhm. I’d sure like to know where your Dada is. Off on one of his expeditions.”
“Dada?” Conlan perked up.
“Not yet,” I told him, reaching for my jeans. “He should be coming back tomorrow or the day after.”
Conlan stomped around. Besides early walking and some seriously disturbing climbing ability, he showed no signs of being a shapeshifter. He didn’t change shape at birth, and he hadn’t shifted yet. By thirteen months, he should’ve been turning into a little baby lion on a regular basis. Doolittle found Lyc-V in Conlan’s blood, present in large quantities, but the virus lay dormant. We always understood it was a possibility, because my blood ate vampirism and Lyc-V for breakfast and asked for seconds. But I knew Curran had hoped our son would be a shapeshifter. So did Doolittle. For a while the Pack’s medmage kept trying different strategies to bring the beast out. He would still be trying, except I’d pulled the plug on that.
About six months ago, Curran and I visited the Keep and left Conlan with Doolittle for about twenty minutes. When we came back, I found Conlan crying on the floor with three shapeshifters in a warrior form growling at him, while Doolittle looked on. I kicked one out of the window and broke the other’s arm before Curran restrained me. Doolittle assured me that our son wasn’t in any danger, and I informed him that he was done torturing our baby for his amusement. I might have underscored my point by holding Conlan to me with one hand and shaking Sarrat sheathed in my blood with the other. Apparently, my eyes had glowed, and the Pack’s Keep trembled. It was collectively decided that further tests were not necessary.
I still took Conlan to Doolittle for his scheduled appointments and when he fell or sneezed or did any of the other baby things that made me fear for his life. But I watched everyone like a hawk the whole time.
I buckled my belt on, slid Sarrat into the sheath on my back, and pulled my hair back into a pony tail. “Let’s go see if your aunt will watch you for a few hours.”
I scooped him up and went downstairs.
Teddy Jo was pacing in our entryway like a caged tiger. I grabbed the keys to our Jeep and went out the door.
“I’ll fly you,” he said.
“No.” I marched across the street to George and Eduardo’s house. I would have to buy George a cake for all the baby sitting she’d been doing lately.
“You said nobody is in immediate danger. If you fly me, I will dangle thousands of feet above the ground in a playground swing carried by a hysterical angel of death.”
“I’m not hysterical.”
“Fine. Extremely agitated angel of death. You can fly overhead and lead the way.”
“Flying will be faster.”
I knocked on George’s door. “Do you want my help or not?”
He made a frustrated noise and stalked off.
The door swung open and George appeared, her tight black curls floating around her head like a halo.
“I’m so sorry,” I started.
She opened her arms and took Conlan for me. “Who is my favorite nephew?”
“He is your only nephew.” After Curran’s family died, Mahon and Martha, the Alphas of Clan Heavy, raised him as their own. George was their daughter and Curran’s sister.
“Details.” George scooped him to her with her good arm. Her bad arm was a stump that stopped about an inch above the elbow. The stump was four inches longer than it used to be. Doolittle estimated that it would completely regenerate in another three years. George never let the arm thing slow her down. She smooched Conlan on his forehead. He wrinkled his nose and sneezed.
“Again, so sorry. It’s an emergency.”
“She waved. “Go, go…”
I turned right and headed toward Derek’s house.
“Now what?” Teddy Jo growled.
“I’m getting back up.” I had a feeling I would need it.
I steered the Jeep down an overgrown road.
“He looks like someone shoved a wasp nest up his ass,” Derek observed.
Above us and ahead Teddy Jo flew, erratically veering back and forth. His wings were made of midnight, so black they swallowed the light. Normally his flight was an awesome sight to behold. Today he flew like he was trying to avoid invisible arrows.
“Something’s got him really agitated.”
Derek grimaced and adjusted the knife on his hip. During his time with the Pack, he’d always worn grey sweats but since he had formally separated from Atlanta’s shapeshifters, he’d adjusted to city life. Jeans, dark T-shirts, and work boots became his uniform. His face would never be the same and he worked hard on maintaining a perpetually grumpy stoic lone wolf persona, but the old Derek was coming out more and more. Occasionally he would say something, and everyone would laugh.
I wasn’t in a laughing mood now. Anything that got Thanatos agitated was bad. I’d known him for almost ten years now. He’d lost his cool a few times, like when he punched a black volhv straight in the face over his sword being stolen. But this was on a different level entirely. This was frantic.
“I don’t like it,” Derek stated, his tone flat.
“Do you think the Universe cares?”
“No, but I still don’t like it. Did he say where we’re going?”
“Serenbe.” I steered around a pothole.
“Never heard of it.”
“It’s a small settlement south-west of Atlanta. It used to be a pretentious wealthy neighborhood and called itself an ‘urban village.’”
Derek blinked at me. “What the hell is an urban village?”
“It’s a cute architecturally planned subdivision in some picturesque woods for people with too much money. The type who would build a million-dollar house, refer to it as ‘cottage,’ stroll outside to be one with nature, and then drive half a mile to buy a ten-dollar cup of special coffee.”
Derek rolled his eyes.
“In the last couple of decades, all the rich people moved back into the city for safety and now there’s a farming community there. Mostly the houses sit on five acres or so and it’s all gardens and orchards. It’s nice. We went there for the peach festival in June.”
I gave him my hard look. “You were invited. As I recall, you had ‘something to take care of’ and decided to do that instead.”
“It must’ve been important.”
“Have you thought about investing in a cape? As much time as you spend running around the city righting wrongs, it would come in handy.”
“Not a cape guy.”
The Jeep rolled over the waves made in the pavement by thick roots, probably from one of the tall oaks flanking the road. Before the Shift, this trip would’ve taken us roughly half an hour. Now we were almost two hours into it. We drove down I-85, which with all the traffic and problems took us about ninety minutes, and were now weaving our way west on South Fulton Parkway.
“He’s landing,” Derek announced.
Ahead, Teddy Jo swooped down. For a moment he hung silhouetted against the bright sky, his black wings open wide, his feet only a few yards above the road, a dark angel born in a time when people left blood as an offering to buy their dearly departed safe passage to the afterlife.
“Show off,” Derek murmured.
“Green doesn’t look good on you.”
Teddy Jo lowered himself on the road. His wings folded and vanished into a puff of black smoke.
“Do you know what he is when he’s flying?” Derek asked.
“No, enlighten me.”
Derek smiled. It was a very small smile, baring only an edge of a fang. “He’s a nice big target. You can shoot him right out of the sky. Where is he going to hide? He’s six feet tall and has a wingspan the size of a small airplane.” Derek chuckled quietly.
You could take the wolf out of the woods, but he would always be a wolf.
I parked by Teddy Jo and opened the door. A blast of sound from the enchanted water engine assaulted my ears.
“Leave it running,” Teddy Jo screamed over the noise.
I grabbed my backpack and stepped out of the Jeep. Derek exited on the other side, moving with fluid grace. We took a right onto a side road and followed Teddy Jo, leaving the snarling Jeep behind.
The trees overshadowed the road. Normally the woods were quiet, but this was the summer of the 17-year cicada brood. Every seventeen years, the cicadas emerged in massive numbers and sang. The chorus was so loud, it screened all normal forest noises, distorting bird song and squirrel chittering into odd alarming sounds.
A hastily erected sign by the side of the road announced, “Stay out by order of the Fulton County Sheriff.”
Underneath was written, “Coy Parker, you cross this line again, I’ll shoot you myself. Sheriff Watkins.”
“Who’s Coy Parker?”
“Local daredevil kid. I had a chat with him. He didn’t see anything.”
Something about the way Teddy Jo said that told me Coy Parker wasn’t about to poke his nose into this mess again.
“Why didn’t they post guards?” Derek asked.
“They’re stretched too thin,” Teddy Jo said. “They’ve got five people right for the whole county. And there isn’t much to guard.”
“What’s all this about?” I asked.
“You’ll see,” Teddy Jo said.
The road curved to the right and brought us to a long street. Driveways peeled away from the road, each leading to a house on about a five-acre lot. Tall fences flanked the houses, some wood, some metal, topped with razor wire. Here and there a wrought iron fence allowed for a glimpse of a garden. With transportation chains disrupted by the Shift, a lot of people turned to gardening. Small farms like this sprang up all around Atlanta, sometimes in the city, but more often just on the outskirts.
It was quiet. Too quiet. This time of day, there should have been normal life noises, kids screaming and laughing, dogs barking, enchanted water engines growling. The whole street was steeped in silence, except for the horny cicadas singing up a storm. It was creepy.
Derek inhaled and crouched low to the ground.
“What is it?” I asked.
His upper lip trembled. “I don’t know.”
“Pick a house,” Teddy Jo said, his face devoid of all expression.
I turned down the nearest driveway. Derek took off down the street at what for him was an easy run and for most people would’ve been an impossible sprint. A wolf could smell its prey from almost two miles away. A shapeshifter during his lifetime catalogued thousands of scent signatures. If Derek wanted to track something, I wouldn’t stand in his way.
I scrutinized the house. Bars on the windows. Solid walls. A good post-Shift home, secure, defensible, no-nonsense. A narrow crack separated the edge of the solid blue door from the doorframe. Unlocked. I pushed it with my fingertips, and the door swung open on well-oiled hinges. The stench of rotting food wrapped around me. I stepped inside. Teddy Jo followed.
The house had an open floor plan, with the kitchen off to the left and a living room space to the right. On the far right, behind the kitchen and the island, a table stood with remnants of someone’s breakfast on it. I moved closer. A glass bottle of maple syrup and plates with what might have been waffles covered with fuzz.
No proverbial signs of struggle. No blood, no bullet holes, no claw marks. Just an empty house. A street of empty houses. My stomach sank.
“Are all the rest like this?”
Teddy Jo nodded. He stayed at the entrance to the room, as if not wanting to enter the space. There was something disturbing about it, as if the air itself was solid and still. This was a dead house. I didn’t know how I knew it, but I felt it. Its people had died and the heart of the home died with them.
“The whole subdivision. Fifty houses. Two hundred and three people. Families.”
What could do this? Had something compelled them to abandon dinner and simply walk out? There were a number of creatures who could put humans under their control, most of them marine or water-based. A Brazilian encantado could probably enchant an entire family. A strong human mage with a focus in telepathy might be able to keep four people under and make them obey his commands. Let’s say someone walked these people out of their house. Then what?
Outside I took a deep breath. Derek sauntered over.
“How are you involved in this?” I asked.
“I was called,” Teddy Jo said.
Ah. A Greek family had prayed to him, probably offered a sacrifice. In the old days it would’ve been a slave. Now probably a deer or a cow.
“I drank the blood,” he said.
A pact was made. He accepted their offering and that obligated him to do something in return.
“What did they want?”
His voice was hollow. “They asked if their son was dead. He was supposed to get married on Saturday. He and his fiancé didn’t show. They became worried and came to check on them on Sunday. They found this. The family called the Sheriffs. They are coming today to process the scene. That’s why we had to get here before they did.”
“What about their son?” Derek asked.
“Cris Katsaros is dead,” Teddy Jo said. “But I can’t return his remains to his family.”
“Why?” This was what he did. If a human of his faith or Greek descent died, Thanatos would know exactly where his body fell.
“I’ll explain on the way.”
“Before we go,” Derek said. “There’s something I need you to see.”
I followed him to the back. A furry brown body lay behind the wrought iron fence. A shaft thrust out of the dead dog’s eye.
“Almost everyone had dogs,” Derek said. “They’re all like that. One shot, one kill.”
Shooting with a bow and arrow was an acquired skill that required a lot of practice. Shooting a dog with an arrow through the eye from a distance large enough that the dog didn’t freak out at the sight or scent of a stranger was just about impossible. It would have to be a one-of-a-kind virtuoso shot. Andrea, my best friend, could do it, but I didn’t know of anyone else who could.
I went back inside and let myself into the back yard. Neat rows of strawberry bushes with the last berries of the season dark red, past the point of picking. A little wooden wagon with a doll inside. My heart squeezed itself into a tight, painful ball. There used to be young children here.
Derek hopped the six-foot fence, razor wire and all, like it was nothing, and landed next to me. His gaze snagged on the doll. A pale-yellow fire rolled over his eyes.
I crouched by the dog, a big shaggy mutt with a lab’s goofy face. Flies buzzed around the body, swarming on the blood seeping through the wound and the shaft in his left orbit.
It was an arrow, not a crossbow bolt, with a wooden shaft and fletched with pale grey feathers. Old school. Arrows weren’t bullets. Their trajectory was a lot more arched. The arrow would rise a few inches, then fall, and considering the dog’s reaction time, the shooter had to be around… 35 yards away. Give or take.
I turned. Behind me a large oak spread its branches just outside of the fence.
Derek followed my gaze, took a running start across the garden, jumped and bounced into the oak branches. He came back a moment later.
“Human,” he said. “And something else.”
“I don’t know.”
The hair on his arms was standing up. Whatever it was, it didn’t smell right.
“What kind of scent is it?”
He shook his head. “The wrong kind of scent. Never smelled it before.”
I glanced at Teddy Jo. “Do you have more to show me?”
We left the subdivision behind and got back to the Jeep. Teddy Jo got into the passenger seat. “Keep going down the parkway.”
The archers killed the dogs first. That was the most likely scenario. Unless they just hated dogs for some odd reason, it was done to keep the animals from barking. That put a hole into my mind control theory. A creature or a human with the ability to subdue the will of others probably wouldn’t have bothered with dogs.
A kitsune might’ve made sense in an odd way. People disagreed on whether kitsune were actual magic animals, fox-spirits, or shapeshifters, but everyone agreed kitsune were trouble. They originated in Japan, and the older they got, the stronger their powers grew. They could weave illusions, influence dreams, and they hated dogs. But kitsune were physically foxes with that unmistakable scent even in human form.
“Did you smell any foxes?” I asked.
“No,” Derek said.
Scratch that theory.
Ahead a road cut through a low hill to the right, ending in the parkway.
“Turn here,” Teddy Jo said.
I made the turn. The Jeep rolled over the old road, careening over the bumps. Ahead a huge building squatted, pale and windowless. A hole gaped in the roof.
“What’s this?” I asked.
“Old Wal-Mart distribution center.”
Derek jerked his door open and leaped out of the car. I slammed on the brakes. He bent over the side of the road and retched.
“Are you okay?” I yelled. The enchanted water engines worked during magic but the noises was deafening.
“Stench,” he ground out and retched again.
I shut off the Jeep. The sudden quiet was deafening. I didn’t smell anything out of the ordinary.
Quiet. Where the hell were the cicadas?
Derek came back to the car. I tossed him a rag to wipe his mouth.
“This way.” Teddy Jo started up the road toward the warehouse.
We caught up with him. He pulled a small tub of VapoRub from his pocket and held it to me.
“You’ll need it.”
I smeared some under my noise and gave it back. Teddy Jo offered it to Derek, who shook his head.
About twenty feet from the warehouse, the reek washed over me, oily, nasty, tinged with sulphur, the stench of something rotting and awful. It cut through the VapoRub like the ointment wasn’t even there. I almost clamped my hand over my mouth.
“Fuck.” Derek stopped to dry heave.
Teddy Jo’s face was made of stone.
We kept going. The stench was impossible now. Every breath I took was like inhaling poison.
We rounded the building. A glossy puddle spread in front of us, large enough to be a pond. Translucent, greyish beige, it flooded the entire back parking lot. Some sort of liquid… No, not liquid, jellied like a layer of agar and where the sun hit it just right, making it glow slightly, chunks of something solid darkened it.
I knelt by it.
What the hell was I looking at? Something long and stringy…
It hit me.
I spun around and ran. I made it five yards before the vomit tore out of me. At least I got far away enough to not contaminate the scene. I retched everything out and then dry heaved for another minute or two. Finally, the spasms died.
I turned. From this point I could still see it, a clump within the solid gel. Human scalp, the brown hair braided and tied with a pink scrunchie. The kind a child might wear.
The thin mask that made Teddy Jo human tore. Wings burst out of his shoulders and when he opened his mouth, I glimpsed fangs. His voice made me want to curl into a ball. It was suffused with old magic and filled with raw, terrible grief.
“Somewhere in there is Chris Katsaros and Lisa Winley. His future wife. I can feel him, but he’s spread through the whole of it. I cannot bring him back to his family. He is lost. They are all lost in this mass grave.”
“I’m so sorry.”
He turned to me, his eyes completely black. “I can tell the cause of death at a glance. It is who I am. But I do not understand this. What is this?”
Derek’s face was terrible. “Is this vomit? Did something eat them all and regurgitate?”
I had a sick feeling I knew exactly what it was. I walked along the perimeter of the puddle. It looked about two feet deep at its center, settled into a pot hole in the uneven parking lot that had sunk in due to rain and neglect. It took me four tries to circle the puddle, mostly because I had to stop and dry heave. I peered at the clumps of hair and loose gobs of flesh.
I’d witnessed plenty of violence and gore, but this was on another level. This was very high near the top on the list of things I wished I had never seen. My chest hurt just from looking at it. I swallowed bile.
“What are you looking for?” Thanatos asked me in his arcane voice.
“It’s what I’m not finding. Bones.”
He stared at the gel. A muscle in his face jerked. He opened his mouth and screamed. It was not any sound a human could make, a cutting shriek, part eagle, part dying horse, part nothing I had ever heard.
Derek spun to me, a question on his face.
“It’s not the vomit of some monster,” I told him. “Someone boiled them.”
I could barely speak. “They boiled them until their flesh fell off, extracted the bones, then dumped the broth here. And whatever they put into that liquid is either magic or poison. There are no flies and no maggots. There are no insects around it, period. I don’t hear a single cicada. All of those people and their children are in that.”
Derek squeezed his hands into fists. A ragged snarl tore out of him. “Who? Why?”
“That’s what we’ll have to find out.” And when I found them, they would wish they were boiled instead.
I drove back to the subdivision. The phone in the first house worked and I dialed Biohazard’s number with Luther’s extension from memory. I could’ve just reported the whole thing to the front desk, but this was bad enough that I had to cut through the red tape.
The phone rang. And rang. And rang.
Come on, Luther.
The line clicked. “What?” Luther’s irritated voice said.
“Whatever it is, unclean one, I don’t have time for it. I have important wizarding to do—”
“Someone boiled two hundred people and dumped the liquid and their remains near Serenbe at a Wal-Mart Distribution Center.”
“Did you say boiled?”
“The mass grave is unsecure and magically potent. There are no bugs in it, Luther. No insect activity anywhere for approximately a quarter mile. I’ve got a basic chalk ward around it now and Teddy Jo’s watching it. The Sheriff’s Department is coming today to process the scene, so if you want to get here before them, you have to hurry. It’s off of South Fulton Parkway heading west. I’ll mark the turn off for you.”
“I’m on my way. Do not leave that grave site, Kate. You do whatever you have to do to keep anything from spawning in there.”
“Don’t worry. I’ll sit on it.”
I hung up and dialed home. No answer. Figured. Curran was still out.
I called George. Conlan was down for a nap. He had eaten some cereal and successfully run away from her twice.
I hung up and dug through the kitchen of the dead house for salt. A big bag waited for me in the pantry. I carried it outside to the Jeep just in time to see Derek hefting four forty-pound bags like they weighed nothing.
“Where did you get this?”
“Found a communal hunter’s shed,” he said. “They must’ve used this for a deer salt lick. There is more.”
“We’ll need it.”
We headed toward the shed.
“Talk to me about scent trails,” I asked.
“Human,” he said. “But there’s something else with it. A screwed-up scent. When you smell a loup, it smells wrong. Toxic. You know there will be no talking. Either you kill it or it will kill you. These things stink like that. Loup but no loup.”
“Corrupted?” I guessed.
“Yeah. That’s a good word for it. They took the people out to the mouth of subdivision.”
I waited but he didn’t say anything else.
“The scent stops,” he said. “It reappears by the puddle.”
“Stops like they teleported?”
I’d ran up against teleportation a couple of times. Teleporting a single human being took a staggering amount of power. The first time, a gathering of very powerful volhvs, Russian pagan priests, had done one, but it took a sacrifice to do it. The second time it was a djinn. Djinns were elder beings, extremely powerful and very rare. There simply wasn’t enough magic in the world to support the continuous existence of one. That particular djinn had been imprisoned inside a jewel. It was a very sophisticated prison that sustained him between magic waves, when technology was at its highest. Even so, he required a human with a significant reservoir of magic whom he possessed to do his tricks, and he hid in Unicorn Lane, where some magic flowed even during the tech for his final act.
How the hell did whoever this was disappear two hundred people?
I really didn’t want to deal with another djinn. I’d nearly had a stroke and almost died the last time.
I turned to Derek. “Could you tell from the scents if all of the people disappeared at the same time?”
“Yes, and they did.”
“Two hundred people and whatever herded them,” I thought out loud. “Teleportation is right out. Too much magic. It has to be a pocket reality.”
Derek glanced at me.
“Remember during the last flare when Bran appeared? He’d spent most of his time in the mist outside of our reality. This is probably similar. Someone came out, grabbed a bunch of people, and took them somewhere.” Which would imply the presence of an elder power, which meant we were all screwed.
The elder powers, gods, djinn, dragons, the great, the powerful, the legendary, required too much magic to exist in our reality. They did exist somewhere, in the mists, in other realms or dimensions, loosely connected to us. Nobody quite knew how it all worked. Nobody knew what would happen if one of them manifested and was caught by a tech wave. Conventional wisdom said they would cease to exist, which is why the only time we saw any elder beings was during a flare, a magic tsunami that came every seven years. During the flare, the magic stayed for at least three days, sometimes as long as a week.
This area wasn’t particularly saturated with magic. If we were dealing with an elder power, this one had balls. Normally, my knee-jerk response was to blame every odd powerfully magical thing on my father, but it didn’t feel like him. I hadn’t sensed any familiar magic, and there was nothing elegant or refined about dumping the remains like that in some forgotten parking lot. My father’s magic shocked you with beauty before it killed you.
“It took two hundred people to its lair to boil them?” Derek asked. “Why?”
“I don’t know.”
“Did they want the bones?”
“I don’t know. I’m not sure if the bones were incidental to this. There are worse interpretations.”
Derek stopped and looked at me.
“They may have boiled them slowly while they were alive to torture them,” I said.
He turned to the shed.
“The world is a fucked-up place,” I told him. “That’s why I’m glad I have Conlan.”
He gave me a sharp look.
“The world needs more good people in it, and my son will be a good person.”
It took over two hours before the loud snarling of enchanted car engines announced Biohazard’s arrival. Two SUVs fought their way up the road, growling and spitting. Behind them a heavy armored truck brought in a cistern. Behind that came two more SUVs. The vehicles spat out people and containers of orange safety suits. They took one whiff of the air rising from the puddle fifty yards behind us and got masks on.
Luther strode toward us. Stocky and dark-haired, he was wearing boots, a pair of stained shorts, and a T-shirt that said “Knight in the streets, Wizard in the sheets.”
“I like the T-shirt,” I told him. “Very professional.”
He didn’t rise to the bait. He just stared at the jellied mass grave. We’d made a basic salt circle around it. The pavement was too broken for the chalk lines.
“I’ll need a statement,” he said. “From the werewolf and Thanatos, too. Where is he?”
I nodded. Teddy Jo had taken a spot on top of the warehouse roof, looking down at the grave. Black smoke curled from him, swirling around his body. If he had the power, he would’ve plucked the remains of a young couple from that grave and resurrected them. But he didn’t. None of us did. Only gods brought people back from the dead and the results were usually mixed, to put it kindly.
“He’s grieving,” I told Luther. “One of his people is in that. He can’t shepherd his soul to the afterlife. To do that, he would have to perform rites over the body and there is no way to separate it. He can’t bring the body back to the family. He is very angry, so I would be gentle in my questioning.”
I told him about the scent trail disappearing. The more I talked, the deeper his frown grew.
“An elder power?” he asked.
“I hope not.”
He stared at the grave again. “Whole families, even the children?”
“I think so.”
I wished I knew why. “The bones are missing.”
He frowned. “The highest concentration of magic is in human bones. That’s why ghouls chew on them. Do we know for sure that they extracted the bones and kept them?”
“No, but statistically there should’ve been at least some bones in there. A skull, a femur, something. I only saw soft tissue.”
He sighed and for a moment he seemed older, his eyes haunted. “I’ll let you know after we excavate and go through it.”
We stood for a long moment, united by outrage and grief. We would both dig into that, he from his end and I from mine. Eventually we would find the one responsible. But it would do nothing for the families whose remains lay in the parking lot, dumped like garbage.
Finally, Luther nodded and went to get into his orange suit while I went to give my statement.
Hell was being stuck behind a teamster convoy driving across Magnolia bridge. Normally I would’ve turned off onto the side street, but Magnolia was one of those new bridges that spanned the rubble of collapsed overpasses and fallen buildings and the fastest way back to the office, and my head was still full of boiled people. By the time I realized what was happening, it was too late.
It cost us a solid half-an-hour, and when we pulled up to Cutting Edge, the afternoon was in full swing. Derek got out, unlocked our parking lot chain, and I drove into my spot and parked.
The street was relatively quiet today, the heat having chased off most of the customers normally frequenting Bill Horn’s tinker shop and Nicole’s car repair place. Only Mr. Tucker lingered. Time and age had whittled his once broad-shouldered and probably muscular body to a thin, slightly frail frame. It had also stolen most of his hair, so he kept it so short, it looked like white fuzz floating over his dark-brown scalp. But the years hadn’t destroyed his spirit. He walked our street twice in the morning and at least once in the afternoon, carrying a large placard. The placard said, “Attention! The End of the World is here! Open your eyes!”
As I climbed out of the Jeep, Mr. Tucker delivered the same message at the top of his voice, just as he’d done countless times before. But, being Southern, Mr. Tucker also believed in politeness.
“Repent! The end is here! How you folks doing today?”
“Can’t complain,” I lied. “Would you like some ice tea? It’s hot out.”
Mr. Tucker raised a metal canteen at me. “Got some tea at Bill’s. Thank you. I’ll see you around.”
“Okay, Mr. Tucker.”
A car went by slowly, obviously looking for something. Mr. Tucker lunged toward it, shaking his placard. “Repent! Open your eyes! You’re living in the Apocalypse!”
I sighed, unlocked the side door, and went inside. Derek followed me, grimacing. “He’s going to get hit by a car one day.”
“And when he does, we’ll take him to the hospital.”
Mr. Tucker was right. We were living in the Apocalypse. Slowly, with each magic wave, a little more of the old technological world died, and the new world and its powers and monsters grew a little stronger. Being one of the monsters, I supposed I shouldn’t complain.
We needed to clear our case load. Serenbe had to take precedence. I checked the large chalk board hanging on the wall. Three cases active: a ghoul in Oakland cemetery, a mysterious “critter” with shiny eyes scaring the students in the Art Institute and eating expensive paint, and a report of an abnormally large glowing wolf in a suburb off Dunwoody Road. Derek approached the board and wiped the wolf off.
“Got it last night.”
“What was it?”
I blinked at him. “The Alpha of Clan Wolf?”
“What is she doing in Dunwoody Heights?”
“She tried to enroll her boys into gymnastics class in the city, and one of the other parents threw a giant fit, so they asked her to leave. She’s been rolling in glow-in-the-dark powder and menacing that woman’s house for the last three nights.”
“Did you explain to her that intimidation isn’t in the Pack’s best interests?”
“I did. She told me that she would’ve gotten away with it if it wasn’t for me, a meddling kid.”
I stoically kept a straight face. “Good job on closing the case.”
“So where did you put the Scooby snacks?”
“Hilarious,” he said dryly.
I pondered the board. A year ago, I would’ve tossed the paint case at Ascanio and forgotten about it. But Ascanio was scarce lately. He barely came in anymore. The last couple of times I had to call him instead of him bugging me for jobs non-stop. School had taken a lot of his time, but he’d graduated this year.
He was still nominally on the books. I picked up the phone and dialed the Bouda House.
Miranda answered with a breathy “Hello.”
The sexy breathiness vanished. “Oh, hi, Kate.”
“Is the evil spawn around?”
“He’s helping Raphael with something.”
That was the answer I’d gotten the last time I called, too. “Okay. Would you let him know that I have a job if he’s interested?”
I was Ascanio’s employer, but Raphael and Andrea were his alphas, and Clan Bouda valued loyalty to the clan above all else. Raphael trumped me. “On second thought, never mind. We’ll handle it.”
“Okay,” Miranda said.
I hung up. With Ascanio MIA and Julie off with Curran on his hunting adventure, we were down to just me and Derek.
“You want me to take it?” he asked.
“No, I need you for Serenbe. We’ll have to pass it on to the Guild.” I hated passing gigs to the Guild. I promised to do the job when I took it, and I took pride in making sure we got it done. Now I would have to explain to the clients that we were too busy. It was bad business and it made me feel lousy. But sometimes I had no choice.
I dialed Barabas at the Guild. I could’ve gone to the Clerk, but since Barabas was the head admin, it would be faster. Besides, the mercs walked into dangerous situations all the time. They needed to know about Serenbe. The more people knew, the better were our chances of figuring this out.
He picked up on the first ring. “Yes?”
“I have to send you two gigs. One is a nuisance job, but the ghoul extraction will need someone good on it.”
“Is your father invading?”
“No, but something bad happened.” I brought him up to date on Serenbe. “Whoever did this got away clean. I have a feeling it won’t be a one-time thing.”
There was a long tense silence.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
“I am. I’m trying to think of a way to notify the mercs that also won’t cause a panic.”
“If you figure that out, call me back.” I could use some pointers in the notifying etiquette department.
“I will. We’ll take care of the gigs.”
I hung up, pulled the two files on the ghoul and the paint eater, and put them on my desk. I’d pass them onto Barabas when I got home today. Being neighbors had its advantages.
“You really think this will happen again?” Derek asked.
I leaned against the table. “They killed the dogs, got two hundred people out, and made them disappear. Nobody escaped. None of the attackers died, or at least we didn’t find any of their bodies or large pools of their blood. Nothing went wrong. They had no screw-ups. You don’t get that good at controlling large numbers of people unless you practice.”
“You think they’ve done it before.”
“I know they’ve done it before, and more than once. If they did it more than once, it’s likely they need a continuous supply of humans for something, so they’ll do it again. I need to be there to stop them. This city is not going to be their hunting ground, if I can help it. So, you and I are going to call the Pack, the People, the Order, and every person in charge we know and notify them that this happened.” Biohazard would be sending its own notifications, but I wanted to put the net out as wide as I could.
Derek moved to his desk. “Dibs on the Pack.”
“Knock yourself out.”
“Kate?” Derek’s face blocked my view.
I rubbed my forehead. “Yes?”
“Food?” he asked.
Food? I hadn’t eaten at all today. “Food would be amazing.”
He nodded and went out the door.
In the past two hours, I’d talked to the three county Sheriff’s offices where people knew me, Douglas, Gwinnett, and Milton. Beau Clayton, the Milton County Sheriff and I went way back. He didn’t like hearing about the disappeared people.
I called the Order and asked to speak to Nick Feldman and was told by Maxine, the Order’s telepathic secretary, that he was in the city but out at the moment, so I had to leave a message with her. I kept it short.
If the Order knew anything, they wouldn’t share it with me and they didn’t trust my information. In the past eighteen months, we’d had to cooperate on a few cases and every time working with Nick Feldman, the current Knight Protector, was like pulling teeth. My mother breaking up his parents’ marriage was bad enough, but Nick also spent some time undercover in Hugh D’Ambray’s inner circle and he got to see firsthand how my father operated. He hated our whole family with the passion of a thousand suns and had made it his life’s mission to make sure we didn’t exist.
Derek had taken the city law enforcement, the Pack, and some on the street contacts he’d been building. Between us, we pretty much covered it. Only the People were left.
I dialed the number.
“You’ve reached the Casino Help Desk,” a young man said into the phone. “This is Noah. How can we make your day wonderful?”
That would take a miracle. “Put me through to Ghastek or Rowena please.”
“May I ask who is calling?”
“Are they expecting your call?”
Great. I got a new apprentice or journeyman. “No.”
“I’m going to need a last name, ma’am.”
“One moment, please.”
There was a beep and Noah spoke to somebody. “Hey, there’s a Kate Lennart calling for the Fearless Leader. She’s not on the list.”
Apparently, Noah hadn’t mastered putting people on hold.
“Kate who?” another male voice asked.
“You idiot, that’s In-Shinar!”
“What?” Noah squeaked.
“You put In-Shinar on hold, you dumbass! Ghastek’s going to hang you by your balls.”
“What do I do?” Panic spiked in Noah’s voice.
You could connect me to Ghastek. If I said something now, it would only freak them out more.
There was some random beeping. I had a vision of Noah frantically pawing at the phone, smacking keys at random like a toddler. A disconnect signal beeped in my ear.
The last time I attended the induction of candidates to the ranks of journeymen, Ghastek introduced me as “Behold, the Immortal One, the In-Shinar, the Blood Blade of Atlanta.” I spent the whole ceremony trying to kill him with my brain. When I chewed him out afterward, he asked who I would rather risk my life for, the Blood Blade of Atlanta or Kate Lennart, a small business owner. I should’ve told him to stuff it. I had only myself to blame.
I put down the phone and counted to five in my head. That should give them enough time to get their crap together.
“Help desk,” Noah croaked.
“It’s me again. Calling for Ghastek.”
“Yes, lady ma’am, um, in-Shinar, um, your majesty.”
I waited. Nothing happened.
“Yes?” His said in a desperate near-whisper. He sounded close to death.
“Transfer the call, please.”
He made a small strangled noise, the line clicked, and Rowena’s smooth voice answered. “Hello, Kate. How is Conlan?”
Telling her that one of her journeymen just called me lady ma’am would be counterproductive. “He’s fine.”
“When will you bring him by?”
Rowena came from the same village as my mother. They shared a similar magical talent, although my mother had been much stronger. The talent came with a price. Women who possessed it had hard time getting pregnant and an even harder time carrying a child to term. I was an exception, perhaps it had to do with Roland’s genes but Curran and I had had no trouble conceiving. Rowena never had children of her own, but she desperately wanted some. She once told me that while my father was alive, the world wasn’t safe enough for her children. Instead she lavished all of her maternal affection on my son.
“As soon as I can. I have some bad news.”
“Is it your father?” A hint of alarm undercut her words.
“No. At least, I don’t think so.”
I explained Serenbe.
“That’s horrible,” Rowena said finally.
Not much shocked a Master of the Dead. Not much shocked me either. By now I’d told this story about seven or eight times. You’d think repetition would file the sharp edge off it, but no, every time was as disturbing as the last.
“We’ll call down to Biohazard and try to get some samples for analysis,” Rowena said.
“That would be amazing.”
I said good-bye and hung up before she had a chance to ask me if he’d developed any magical powers. Everybody wanted my son to be something more. He was perfect the way he was.
Someone rapped their knuckles on my door.
“Come in,” I called.
The door swung open and Raphael walked in, carrying a dark green bottle. He wore a dark grey suit.
“Beware the boudas,” I said. “Especially when they bear gifts.”
He smiled. “Can I come in?”
“Please.” I pointed to my client chair. “Sit down.”
He did. His black hair fell on his shoulders in a soft wave. Usually when people used words like smolder when describing a man, I just laughed. However, for Raphael that word felt entirely appropriate. There was something about him, something in his dark blue eyes, in the way he carried himself with a hint of feral shapeshifter cutting through the polish, that made women think of sex. Luckily, I was immune.
“What’s in the bottle?”
He pushed it across the desk to me. The handwritten label with a cute orange-yellow apple read, “B’s Best Cider.”
I whistled. “Now I know it’s bad.”
When Curran and I got married, Clan Bear provided several barrels of honey ale for the wedding. The ale was a roaring success. Raphael realized that the Bouda Clanhouse sat in the middle of an apple orchard and sensed a business opportunity. B’s Cider hit the market a year ago, and, like all things Raphael touched, it turned to gold.
He leaned back in the chair, one long leg over another. Life with Andrea was good to Raphael. He looked clean-cut. His suit fit him so well, it had to be tailored.
“Let me guess, your tailor is holding your latest outfit hostage and you want me to liberate it.”
“If I asked you to do that, everything would be covered in blood and my suit would be ruined. No, I’d ask my wife. She’d shoot him between the eyes from a hundred yards away.”
That she would.
“I came to talk about the boy,” he said. “I brought the cider, because it isn’t an easy conversation.”
“I’ve come to ask you to let him go.”
I thought as much. “Why isn’t Ascanio here to speak for himself?”
“Because you took him in when nobody would have him. Aunt B sent him to you, because he was impossible to handle, and she knew that sooner or later he would do the wrong thing or say the wrong thing, and someone would rip out his throat. You gave him a job, a place he belonged, you trained him, and you trusted him. You turned him into someone who is now an asset to the clan. He understands all of this. He’s loyal to you.”
He paused. I waited for him to continue.
“But he also wants things.”
“We can start with money. He can earn money here, but he wants more. He wants wealth.”
He and I both knew that Ascanio wouldn’t get wealth working for me. Cutting Edge paid the bills, but it wouldn’t make anyone rich. I had no interest in expanding. I liked that we were small.
“Also, he wants acceptance, responsibility, and power. He wants to climb the clan’s power hierarchy. At his core, he’s a bouda and he needs other boudas to acknowledge how good he is.”
“Both of these are means to an end.” Raphael leaned forward. “What he really wants is…”
“Security,” I told him. “I taught him for almost four years, Raphael. He grew up without a male role model in a hellish place, so when he came to the Clan, he fixated on you. He wants to be you. Respected, successful, dangerous alpha. I figured all this out a long time ago.”
“He’s been working for me for the last six months,” Raphael said.
Raphael chewed on his lip. “There is no point in trying to be diplomatic, so I’m just going to come out and say it. Male eighteen-year-old boudas think with their balls. Andrea and I spend half of our time fighting to keep them out of Jim’s rock-hauling camp.”
Like Curran, Jim constantly improved the Keep, adding on towers, walls, and escape tunnels. A good portion of those improvements were built by boudas between ages of twelve and twenty-five performing the Pack’s version of community service for various infractions. The boudas couldn’t seem to stay out of trouble and Jim always welcomed free labor.
“Ascanio is different from his peers,” Raphael said. “He thinks with his head and he’s strategic in his decisions. When we sent him down to Kentucky, he ran into h…” Raphael paused. “… into trouble. He handled it. Better than I did.”
“I have no doubt he did.”
“We need him, and he needs us. And I realize that my mother dumped him on you, you spent four years stabilizing, teaching, and hammering him into what he is today, and now that he’s useful, we want him back and it’s unfair. I’m sorry. I owe you. Our entire clan owes you.”
“You don’t owe me anything. I did it for him, not for you.”
“But you did it and someone has to appreciate it. I’m here to say that we acknowledge it and we won’t forget. If you leave it up to him, he will never walk away from you. He can’t. His sense of loyalty won’t let him. But he won’t be happy here. He wants recognition and acceptance from the Pack. Like it or not, you’re not just anyone, Kate. You are the In-Shinar. The longer you keep him with you, the harder it will be for him to be seen as separate from you.”
He just had to throw it in my face. I sighed. “Do you see any chains around here, Raphael?”
“No.” His smile was sad.
“Okay then. He isn’t an indentured servant. He’s free to do as he wants. I’ll take him off the payroll as of today. He is welcome to come back any time, but I will stop calling.”
“Thank you,” he said.
“It’s not about you. He should do whatever makes him happy.”
Raphael nodded again. He looked miserable.
I let him off the hook. “How is Baby B doing?”
He grinned. “A wolf boy tried to steal her toy at the picnic last week. She chased him down, took the toy away, and beat him bloody with it.”
“You must be so proud.”
“Oh, I am.”
“I’ll see you around, Raphael.”
“You will, Kate.”
Well, that was that. I felt oddly hollow. No more funny one-liners. No more tortured Latin. No more off-color jokes. It had been moving to this moment for a while, but it still made me feel empty.
Derek walked into the office. “What did Raphael want?”
I shook my head. “Nothing important.”
Derek eyed the bottle of cider and pulled two small paper bags out of a larger paper bag. The delicious aroma of Mexican spices filled the air. Chicken soft tacos. My favorite. The closest Mexican place was about two miles off. He’d gone to get them for me.
I got up, got two glasses, opened the cider, and poured some for us. He landed into the client chair and bit into his taco. I chewed mine. Mmmm, delicious.
“I’m going to go back to Serenbe tomorrow,” he said. “I want to do a wider search. See if I can pick up a trail.”
“Okay,” I said.
We chewed some more.
“Do you ever want wealth?” I asked.
Derek paused his chewing. “No.”
“I mean, do you ever want more money?”
He gave me a one-shouldered shrug. “My bills are paid. Got enough for food, got enough for tools of the trade, can buy Christmas presents. What else would I need?”
I nodded. We drank our cider and ate our tacos, and it was nice.