No matter how much the paranormal politics of Atlanta change, one thing always remains the same: if there’s trouble, Kate Daniels will be in the middle of it...
As the mate of the Beast Lord, Curran, former mercenary Kate Daniels has more responsibilities than it seems possible to juggle. Not only is she still struggling to keep her investigative business afloat, she must now deal with the affairs of the pack, including preparing her people for attack from Roland, a cruel ancient being with god-like powers. Since Kate’s connection to Roland has come out into the open, no one is safe—especially those closest to Kate.
As Roland’s long shadow looms ever nearer, Kate is called to attend the Conclave, a gathering of the leaders from the various supernatural factions in Atlanta. When one of the Masters of the Dead is found murdered there, apparently at the hands of a shapeshifter, Kate is given only twenty-four hours to hunt down the killer. And this time, if she fails, she’ll find herself embroiled in a war which could destroy everything she holds dear...
**Includes the bonus Kate Daniels story Magic Tests**
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Ilona Andrews is the pseudonym for a husband-and-wife writing team. Together, they are the coauthors of the #1 New York Times bestselling Kate Daniels urban-fantasy series, including Magic Rises, Magic Slays, and Magic Bleeds and the romantic urban-fantasy novels of the Edge, including Steel's Edge, Fate's Edge, and Bayou Moon. They currently reside in Texas with their two children and numerous pets.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
“KATE, THIS IS really dangerous,” Ascanio said.
Teenage shapeshifters have an interesting definition of “dangerous.” Lyc-V, the virus responsible for their existence, regenerates their bodies at an accelerated rate, so getting stabbed means a nap followed by a really big dinner, and a broken leg would equal two weeks of taking it easy and then running a marathon with no problems. On top of being a shapeshifter, Ascanio was an adolescent male and a bouda, or werehyena, who were in a category all their own when it came to taking risks. Usually when a bouda said that something was dangerous, it meant it could instantly incinerate you and spread the ashes to the wind.
“Alright,” I said. “Hold the rope.”
“I really think it would be better if I went instead.”
Ascanio gave me a dazzling smile. I let it bounce off me and fixed him with my hard stare. Five ten and still slender from growing too fast, Ascanio wasn’t just handsome; he was beautiful: perfect lines, cut jaw, sculpted cheekbones, dark hair, and darker eyes. He had the kind of face that could only be described as angelic; however, one look at those big eyes and you realized that he’d never been to heaven, but somewhere in hell a couple of fallen angels were missing a sixteen-year-old. He realized the effect he had early in life, and he milked it for everything it was worth. In about five years, when that face matured, he would be devastating. If he lived that long. Which right now didn’t seem likely, because I was mad at him.
“Hold the rope,” I repeated, and took the first step.
“Don’t look down,” Ascanio said.
I looked down. I was standing on a metal beam about eighteen inches wide. Below me, the remains of the Georgian Terrace Hotel sagged sadly onto the ruined street. Magic hadn’t been kind to the once-proud building. Its eighteen floors had collapsed in stages, creating a maze of passageways, sheer drops, and crumbling walls. The whole mess threatened to bite the dust any second, and I was on the very top of this heap of rubble. If I slipped, I would fall about a hundred feet to the pavement below. My imagination painted my head cracking like an egg dropped onto the sidewalk. Just what I needed. Because balancing on the iced-over beam wasn’t hard enough.
“I said don’t look down,” Ascanio said helpfully. “Also, be careful, the ice is slippery.”
“Thank you, Captain Obvious.”
Below me, the graveyard of Atlanta’s Downtown stretched into the distance. The massive buildings had toppled over decades ago, some shattering into gravel, some almost whole, sprawling on the ground with their beam work exposed, like rotting beached whales with their bones on display. Heaps of rubble choked the streets. Strange orange plants grew among the debris, each a thin stalk terminating in a single triangular leaf. In summer, sewage and rain overflow spilled into the open, but the harsh winter froze it, sheathing the ground with black ice.
The magic of Unicorn Lane swirled around me, dangerous and twisted. Magic flooded our world in waves, here one minute, gone the next, but Unicorn Lane, the lovely place that it was, retained its power even when the tech was at its strongest. It was the place where you came when life’s troubles became too much for you. Things with glowing eyes bred here among fallen skyscrapers, and if you lingered in these ruins, one of them was guaranteed to cure all that ailed you.
Anyone with half a brain avoided Unicorn Lane, especially after dark. But when your business is floundering, you have to take whatever job comes along, especially if it starts with the chief editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution crying in your office chair because her rare and expensive pet has gone missing. Since the magic killed the Internet and crippled TV, newspapers had once again become the primary source of news, and an endorsement from the largest newspaper in the region was worth its weight in gold. Also, she cried in my office. I took the job.
Being a Consort, I didn’t have to work for my living. The Pack took care of the necessities, but I wanted Cutting Edge to succeed and I would do whatever it took to make it stand on its own two feet. Even if it involved tracking down escaped pets.
Unfortunately, the fluffy critter in question had made a beeline straight for Unicorn Lane, and so it took me a few hours to find it. And I let my sixteen-year-old bouda intern come with me, because he could track the beast by scent and I couldn’t. Ascanio wasn’t bad in a fight. He was physically powerful and fast, and he had a strong half-form, a meld between a human and animal that made the shapeshifters incredibly efficient killers. Raphael, the alpha of Clan Bouda, had been whittling Ascanio down into a decent fighter over the past months. Unfortunately all that training didn’t do anything for his common sense.
I had finally cornered the small creature, hiding in a crevice. While I tiptoed toward it making quiet nonthreatening noises, Ascanio decided to help by snarling “to flush it out,” which caused me to nearly fall into a hole in the floor and sent the panicked beast straight to the top of the precariously standing building. Which is how I ended up with a rope around my waist, trying to maneuver on a foot-and-a-half-wide beam protruding twenty feet over a sheer drop, while the exotic and rare pet shivered at the very end of it.
“Please let me do this,” Ascanio said. “I want to help.”
“You’ve helped enough, thank you.” I took another step along the beam. If I fell, with his shapeshifter strength he would have no problems pulling me to safety. If he fell, getting him back up to the top of the building would be considerably harder for me. The deadweight of a human being was no joke.
“I’m sorry I scared it.”
“When I grab it, you can apologize.”
The small beast shivered and tiptoed toward the other end of the beam. Great.
Ascanio growled under his breath.
“I can hear you growling. If I can hear you growling, it can hear you, too. If you scare it into leaping to its death, I’ll be really mad at you.”
“I can’t help it. It’s an abomination.”
The abomination stared at me with large green eyes.
I took another step. “It’s not an abomination. It’s a bunnycat.”
The bunnycat scooted another inch toward the end of the beam. It resembled a criminally fluffy average-sized housecat. Its owner described the fur color as lilac, which to me looked like pale grayish-brown. It had a cute kitten face, framed by two long ears, as if someone had taken regular cat ears and stretched them out, enlarging them to bunny size. Its hind legs were all rabbit, powerful and muscled, while its front legs, much shorter than those of an average cat, looked completely feline. Its tail, a squirrel-like length of fluff, shook in alarm. The first bunnycats were the result of some sort of botched magical experiment at the veterinary school of the University of California. They were sold off to private breeders and since they were rare and cute, they became the latest rage in hideously expensive household pets.
The wind buffeted me. I fought a shiver. “What’s your problem with it anyway?”
“It’s wrong and unnatural,” Ascanio said.
“And turning into a hyena is natural?”
“A cat is a predator. A rabbit is prey. It’s a rodent. They took a cat and mixed it with a rodent. It doesn’t smell right.”
I took a couple more steps. Damn, this beam was high.
“I mean, how would it feed itself?” Ascanio asked. “If it doesn’t hunt, it can’t survive on its own and it’s something that shouldn’t exist. If it does hunt, it will probably catch mice, the only thing small enough besides birds, which means it would be feeding on its relatives. It’s a cannibal rodent. It sounds like a bad movie.”
“Rodents are already cannibals. Ask Clan Rat, they’ll tell you.” The Pack consisted of seven clans, segregated by the species of the animal, and members of Clan Rat were rather pragmatic about their natural counterparts’ habits.
“What do they feed it anyway?” Ascanio asked.
“Bacon and strawberries.”
There was an outraged silence behind me.
“Bacon?” he managed finally.
“Yep.” I moved forward another six inches. Easy does it.
“Because that’s what it would catch in the wild, a boar, right? I can’t wait to see a pack of bunnycats take down a wild hog with those short tiny legs. Wouldn’t the boar be surprised?”
Everybody was a comedian.
“Maybe if I oink loud enough, it’ll leap across the beam and try to devour me.”
A gust of cold wind slammed against me, biting straight through three layers of clothes into my bones. My teeth chattered. “Ascanio . . .”
“I think you misunderstand the whole nature of what it means to be an employee. We have a job to do; we are doing it. Or I’m doing it, and you’re making it more difficult.”
“I’m not an employee. I’m an intern.”
“Try to be a silent intern.”
I crouched on the beam. The bunnycat shivered less than a foot away.
“Here . . .” Bunny? Kitty? “Here, cute creature thing . . . Don’t be scared.”
The bunnycat squeezed itself into a tiny ball, looking sweet and innocent. I’d seen that look on feral cats before. That look meant they would turn into a tornado of razor claws as soon as you were within striking distance.
I scooped it up, bracing myself to be clawed bloody.
The bunnycat looked at me with its round green eyes and purred.
I rose and turned. “Got it.”
The beam collapsed under my feet and we plunged down. My stomach tried to jump out of my mouth. The rope jerked, burning my ribs, and I hung suspended over the sheer drop, the bunnycat snuggled in my arms. The beam crashed to the ground with a loud clang, gouging the crumbling pavement.
The rope rotated slightly. The bunnycat purred, oblivious. Across the ruined city, the sun was rolling toward the horizon, turning the sky orange in its wake. I was alive. How about that? Now I just had to stay that way.
“Okay, pull me up.”
The rope didn’t move.
“Ascanio?” What was it now? Did he see a butterfly and get distracted?
The rope slid up, as fast as if wound by a winch. I shot upward. What the . . . ?
I cleared the edge and found myself face to face with Curran.
He held the rope up with one hand, muscles bulging on his arm under his sweatshirt. No strain showed on Curran’s face. It’s good to be the baddest shapeshifter in the city. Behind him Ascanio stood very still, pretending to be invisible.
Curran’s gray eyes laughed at me. The Beast Lord reached out and touched my nose with his finger. “Boop.”
“Very funny,” I told him. “Could you put me down?”
“What are you doing in Unicorn Lane after dark?”
“Apprehending a bunnycat. What are you doing in Unicorn Lane after dark?”
“Looking for you. I got worried when you didn’t come home for dinner. L'ooks like I found you just in time. Again.” He lowered me onto the ruined roof.
“I had it under control.”
“Mm-hm.” He leaned over the bunnycat and kissed me. He tasted just like I remembered, and the feel of his mouth on mine was like coming home out of a dark cold night to a bright warm house.
I put the bunnycat into the pet carrier and we hightailed it off the roof.
• • •
I HOPPED OVER a metal beam covered in pink slime that steamed despite freezing temperatures. The cold wind licked my back through my jacket.
Ahead of me, Curran leaped onto a concrete boulder. For a large man, he was remarkably graceful. “I parked on Fourteenth.”
Mmm, car. Warm nice car. We had come on foot, and right now the car heater sounded heavenly.
Curran stopped. I landed next to him. “What’s up?”
I looked over Unicorn Lane. In front of me an old apartment building sagged to the street, its weight too much for its magic-weakened steel bones. To the right, frost turned a twisted heap of concrete debris and wire into a labyrinth of white lattice. Looked familiar . . . Ah.
“What is it?” Ascanio asked.
I pointed at the half-crumbled apartment building, where a dark gap offered a way inside. “This is where we first met.”
I had been investigating the death of my guardian and discovered that the Pack was involved. At the time I was doing my best to lie low, which made me an unknown, so Curran invited me for a face-to-face meeting in that apartment building. He’d wanted to see if I’d brave Unicorn Lane at night. I did.
It seemed so long ago now.
Curran put his arm around me. “Here, kitty, kitty, kitty?”
“I had to say something to make you come out of the dark.”
“There?” Ascanio asked. “You met in that dark hole?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Why would anyone want to meet in Unicorn Lane? Something bad could’ve happened. Why not a nice restaurant? Women like restaurants.”
I cracked up. Curran flashed a grin and we climbed off the concrete into the alley.
Curran had parked his Pack Jeep on the corner of the alley and Fourteenth Street. Three thugs, two men and a woman, were trying to pop the lock open. Oy. Thanks, Atlanta.
The would-be carjackers saw us. The man in a blue jacket swung around and leveled a gun in our general direction. Big barrel, small brain.Hey, here are some guys walking out of Unicorn Lane at night. They’re in good shape and look like they could kick my ass. I think I’m going to try to take their car at gunpoint. Sheer brilliance. Yep, this will totally work.
Without breaking his stride, Curran moved slightly in front of me. I had no doubt that if the thug fired, His Furriness would block it rather than letting the bullet hit me. He’d pulled this maneuver before a couple of times. I still wasn’t sure how I felt about it. I really didn’t want him getting shot on my account.
“Give me the keys!” Blue Jacket said, his voice raspy.
Curran’s eyes went gold. His voice dropped into a rough growl. “If you’re going to shoot, make sure to empty the clip, because after you’re done, I’ll shove that gun up your ass sideways.”
Blue Jacket blinked.
“Can you even do that?” I asked.
“Let’s find out.” Curran stared at the thug. “Well? Shoot, so we can start this experiment.”
Blue Jacket stuck the gun into his pocket and fled. His buddies dashed after him down the street.
Curran shook his head, got the keys out, and opened the hatch. We packed the crate with the bunnycat inside, Curran slid into the driver’s seat and started the engine, and we were off, heading through the city toward the northeast, where the shapeshifter Pack made its lair in the Keep.
The car heater kicked in. My teeth stopped chattering.
“I’m so hungry,” Ascanio said. “What’s for dinner in the Keep?”
“We are going to the Keep,” Curran said. “You’re going to your mother’s house.”
Ascanio bristled. “Why?”
“Because you haven’t been there in the past three days and she would like to see your face. And because she would like to discuss your latest report card.”
Damn it. Him and Julie both. My fifteen-year-old ward had failed algebra in a spectacular fashion. First, she tried to convince me that the teacher lost her homework, all four different assignments of it. Then she ranted for a while about how school was hard and we were placing unreasonable demands on her, and then, for a big finish, she informed us that she would rather drop out and be homeless. Curran and I slow-clapped for a whole minute.
“What did you fail this time?”
“I failed nothing. I’m passing all my classes.”
“He has a forty in algebra,” Curran said.
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