Magic Shifts: A Kate Daniels Novel

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9780425270677: Magic Shifts: A Kate Daniels Novel

In the latest Kate Daniels novel from #1 New York Times bestselling author Ilona Andrews, magic is coming and going in waves in post-Shift Atlanta—and each crest leaves danger in its wake...
 
After breaking from life with the Pack, mercenary Kate Daniels and her mate—former Beast Lord Curran Lennart—are adjusting to a very different pace. While they’re thrilled to escape all the infighting, Kate and Curran know that separating from the Pack completely is a process that will take time.
 
But when they learn that their friend Eduardo has gone missing, Kate and Curran shift their focus to investigate his disappearance. Eduardo was a fellow member of the Mercenary Guild, so Kate knows the best place to start looking is his most recent jobs. As Kate and Curran dig further into the merc’s business, they discover that the Guild has gone to hell and that Eduardo’s assignments are connected in the most sinister way...
 
An ancient enemy has arisen, and Kate and Curran are the only ones who can stop it—before it takes their city apart piece by piece.

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About the Author:

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 and the romantic urban-fantasy novels of the Edge. They currently reside in Texas with their two children and numerous pets.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One

I rode through the night-drenched streets of Atlanta on a mammoth donkey. The donkey’s name was Cuddles. She was ten feet tall, including the ears, and her black-and-white hide suggested she might have held up a Holstein cow in some dark alley and was now wearing her clothes. My own blood-spattered outfit suggested I’d had an interesting night. Most horses would’ve been nervous about letting a woman covered with that much blood on their back, but Cuddles didn’t seem to mind. Either it didn’t bother her or she was a pragmatist who knew where her carrots were coming from.

The city lay in front of me, deserted, quiet, and steeped in magic, unfurling its streets to the starlight like a moonlight flower. Magic ran deep through Atlanta tonight, like a current of some phantom river, slipping into the shadowy places and waking hungry things with needle-long teeth and glowing eyes. Anyone with a drop of common sense hid behind reinforced doors and barred windows after dark. Unfortunately for me, common sense was never among my virtues. As Cuddles quietly clopped her way down the streets, the sounds of her hoof beats unnaturally loud, the night shadows watched us and I watched them back. Let’s play who can be a better killer. My sword and I love this game.

None of the monsters took the bait. It might have been because of me, but most likely it was because one of them was moving parallel to my route. They smelled him, and they hid and hoped he would pass them by.

It was almost midnight. I’d had a long day. My back ached, my clothes smelled of fetid blood, and a hot shower sounded heavenly. I had made two apple pies last night, and I was pretty sure that at least one piece would be left for me. I could have it tonight with my tea before I went to bed...

An annoying spark of magic ignited in my mind. A vampire. Oh goody. The spark “buzzed” in my brain like an angry mosquito and moved closer. The Immortuus pathogen, the disease responsible for vampirism, killed the minds of its victims, leaving behind an empty shell driven by an all-consuming bloodlust. Left to its own devices, a vampire would hunt and slaughter, and when it ran out of things to kill, it would starve to death. This particular bloodsucker wasn’t free to rampage, because its blank mind was held in a telepathic grip by a necromancer. The necromancer, or navigator as they were called, sat in a room far away, directing the vampire with his will as if it were a remote-controlled car. The navigator heard what the vampire heard, saw what the vampire saw, and if the vampire opened its mouth, the navigator’s words would come out of it.

Meeting a bloodsucker this far south meant it belonged to the People, an odd hybrid of a corporation and a research facility, whose personnel dedicated themselves to the study of the undead and making money on the side. The People avoided me like the plague. Two months ago they had figured out that the man behind their organization, the nearly immortal wizard with godlike powers and legendary magic, happened to be my father. They had some difficulty with that development. So the vampire wasn’t for me.

Still...I knew most of the People’s patrol routes and this undead was definitely off-course. Where the hell was it going?

No. Not my circus, not my undead monkeys.

I felt the vampire make a ninety-degree turn, heading straight for me. Home, shower, apple pie. Maybe if I said it like a prayer, it would work. The distance between us shrank. Home, shower...

An undead leaped off the roof of the nearest two-story house and landed on the road next to me, gaunt, each shallow muscle visible under the thick hide, as if someone had crafted a human anatomy model out of steel wire and poured a paper-thin layer of rubber over it.

Damn it.

The undead unhinged its mouth and Ghastek ’s dry voice came out. “You’re difficult to find, Kate.”

Well, well. The new head of the People’s Atlanta office had come to see me personally. I’d curtsy but I was too tired to get off my donkey and the sword on my back would get in the way. “I live in the suburbs and come home almost every night. My business phone number is in the book.”

The vampire tilted its head, mimicking Ghastek ’s movements. “You’re still riding that monstrosity?”

“Feel free to stomp him,” I told Cuddles. “I’ll back you up.”

Cuddles ignored me and the vampire, defiantly clopping past it. The bloodsucker turned smoothly and fell into step next to me. “Where is your...significant other?”

“He’s around.” He was never too far. “Why, are you worried he’ll find out about this romantic rendezvous?”

The vampire froze for a second. “What?”

“You’re meeting me in secret on a lonely street in the middle of the night...”

Ghastek ’s voice was so sharp, if it were a knife, I would’ve been sliced to ribbons. “I find your attempts at humor greatly distressing.”

Hee-hee.

“I assure you, this is strictly business.”

“Sure it is, sweet cheeks.”

The vampire’s eyes went wide. In an armored room deep in the bowels of the People’s Casino, Ghastek was probably having a heart attack from the outrage.

“What are you doing out in my neck of the woods?”

“Technically, the entire city is your neck of the woods,” Ghastek said. “True.”

Two months ago my father had decided to dramatically claim Atlanta as his own domain. I tried to stop him in an equally dramatic fashion. He knew what he was doing, I didn’t, and I ended up accidentally claiming the city in his stead. I was still fuzzy on how exactly the claiming worked, but apparently it meant that I had assumed guardianship of the city and the safety of Atlanta was now my responsibility. In theory, the magic of the city was supposed to nourish me and make my job easier, but I had no idea how exactly that worked. So far I didn’t feel any different.

“But still, I heard you were promoted. Don’t you have flunkies to do your bidding?”

The vampire twisted his face into a hair-raising leer. Ghastek must’ve grimaced.

“I thought you would be happy,” I said. “You wanted to be the head honcho.”

“Yes, but now I have to deal with you. He spoke to me, personally.”

He said “he” with the kind of reverence that could only mean Roland, my father.

“He believes that you may hesitate to kill me because of our shared experiences,” Ghastek continued. “Which makes me uniquely qualified to lead the People in your territory.”

Showing how freaked out I was about having a territory would severely tarnish my City Guardian cred. “Aha.”

“I’m supposed to cooperate with you. So, in the spirit of cooperation, I’m informing you that our patrols have sighted a large group of ghouls moving toward the city.”

Ghouls were bad news. They followed the same general pattern of infection, incubation, and transformation as vampires and shapeshifters, but so far nobody had managed to figure out what actually turned them into ghouls. They were smart, supernaturally fast, and vicious, and they fed on human carrion. Unlike vampires, whom they somewhat resembled, ghouls retained some of their former personality and ability to reason, and they quickly figured out that the best way to get human carrion was to butcher a few people and leave the corpses to rot until they decomposed enough to be consumed. They traveled around in packs of three to five members and attacked isolated small settlements.

“How large is the group?” “Thirty plus,” Ghastek said.

That wasn’t a group. That was a damn horde. I had never heard of a ghoul pack that large.

“Which way are they coming?”

“The old Lawrenceville Highway. You have about half an hour before they enter Northlake. Best of luck.”

The vampire took off into the night.

A few decades ago, Northlake would have been only a few minutes away. Now a labyrinth of ruins lay between me and that part of the city. Our world suffered from magic waves. They began without warning a few decades ago in a magic-induced apocalypse called the Shift. When magic flooded our world, it took no prisoners. It smothered electricity, dropped planes out of the sky, and toppled tall buildings. It eroded asphalt off the roads and birthed monsters. Then, without warning, the magic would vanish again and all of our gadgets and guns once again worked.

The city had shrunk post-Shift, after the first magic wave caused catastrophic destruction. People sought safety in numbers, and most of the suburbs along the old Lawrenceville Highway stood abandoned. There were some isolated communities in Tucker, but people settling there knew what to expect from the magic-fueled wilderness and it would be difficult for a pack of ghouls to take them down. Why bother, when less than five miles down the road Northlake marked the outer edge of the city? It was a densely populated area, filled with suburban houses and bordered by a few watchtowers along a ten-foot fence topped with razor wire. The guards could handle a few ghouls, but with thirty coming in fast, they would be overrun. The ghouls would scale the fence in seconds, slaughter the tower guards, and turn the place into a bloodbath.

There would be no assistance from the authorities. By the time I found a working phone and convinced the Paranormal Activity Division that a pack of ghouls six times the typical size was moving toward Atlanta, Northlake would be an all-you-can-devour ghoul buffet.

Above me a huge dark shape dashed along the rooftops and leaped, clearing the gap between two buildings. The starlight caught it for a heart-stopping second, illuminating the powerfully muscled torso, four massive legs, and the dark gray mane. The hair on the back of my neck stood up. It was as if the night itself had opened its jaws and spat out a prehistoric creature, something born of human fear and hungry animal growls echoing in the dark. I only saw him for a moment, but the image imprinted itself in my mind as if chiseled in stone. My body instantly recognized that he was predator and I was prey. I’d known him for three years now, and the instinctual response still hit every single time.

The beast landed, turned north, and vanished into the night, heading toward Northlake.

Instead of running away as fast as I could like any sane person would do, I nudged Cuddles, hurrying her until she broke into a gallop. One doesn’t let her fiancé fight a horde of ghouls by himself. Some things were just not done.

***

The empty expanse of the Lawrenceville Highway spread before me. The road cut through a shallow hill here, and stone walls held back the slope on both sides. I parked myself at the mouth of the hill, just before it melted into a vast, completely flat field. As good a place as any to make a stand.

I stretched my neck slowly, one side, then the other. I’d left Cuddles tethered to a tree half a mile back. Ghouls normally would have no interest in her, but she smelled like me and one of them might try to rip her neck open just out of spite.

The moon rolled out of the clouds, illuminating the fields. The night sky was impossibly high, the stars like diamonds in its icy depth. A cold breeze came, tugging at my clothes and my braid. It was the beginning of March, and the onset of spring was sudden and warm, but at night winter still bared its fangs.

The last time I was this far from the city, I had been the Consort of the Pack, the largest shapeshifter organization in the South. That was behind me now. Thirty ghouls would be rough without backup. Lucky for me, I had the best backup in the city.

When I had claimed Atlanta, the claiming had created a boundary. I felt it fifty feet in front of me, an invisible line of demarcation. I should’ve gone to inspect the boundary sooner, but I’d been busy trying to separate myself from the Pack and setting up the new house and working my ass off, because eventually our savings would run out...But pretending that the claiming hadn’t happened did me no favors.

Something moved in the distance. I focused on it. The movement continued, the horizon rippling slightly. A few breaths and the shiver broke into individual shapes running in an odd loping gait, leaning on their arms like gorillas but never fully shifting into a quadrupedal run.

Wow, that’s a lot of ghouls.

Showtime. I reached for the sword on my back and pulled Sarrat out of its sheath. The opaque, almost white blade caught the weak moonlight. Single-handed, with a razor-sharp edge, the blade was a cross between a straight sword and a traditional saber, with a slight curve that made it excellent for both slashing and thrusting. Sarrat was fast, light, and flexible, and it was about to get a hell of a workout.

The distorted shapes kept coming. Knowing there were thirty ghouls was one thing. Seeing them gallop toward you was completely different. A spark of instinctual fear shot through me, turning the world sharper, and melted into calm awareness.

Thin tendrils of vapor rose from Sarrat’s surface in response. I turned the saber, warming up my wrist.

The ghoul horde drew closer. How the hell did I get myself into these things?

I walked toward them, sword in my hand, point down. I had few social skills, but intimidation I did well.

The ghouls saw me. The front ranks slowed, but the back rows were still running at full speed. The mass of ghouls compacted like a wave breaking against a rock and finally screeched to a halt just before the boundary. We stopped, them on one side of the invisible magic divide, me on the other.

They were lean and muscular, with disproportionately powerful arms and long, spadelike hands, each finger tipped by a short curved claw. Bony protrusions, like short knobby horns, thrust through their skin at random spots on their back and shoulders. The horns were a defensive mechanism. If someone tried to pull the ghoul out of its burrow, the horns would wedge against dirt. A werewolf armed with superhuman strength would have a difficult time plucking a ghoul out of the ground. I’d seen the horns grow as long as four inches, but most of the ones decorating this crowd barely reached half an inch. Their skin was dark gray on the chest, neck, and faces, the kind of gray that was most often found on military urban camouflage.

Small splotches of muddy brown dotted their backs and their shoulders. If not for the watery yellow glow of their irises, they would’ve blended into the road completely.

None of them were lame, starved, or weak. The odds weren’t in my favor. I had to think of a strategy and fast.

The ghouls peered at me with oddly slanted eyes, the inner corners dipping much lower than the outer ones.

I waited. The moment you start speaking, you become less scary, and I had no intention of being less scary. The ghouls were sentient, which meant they could feel fear, and I needed every bit of advantage I could scrounge up.

A large ghoul shouldered its way to the front of the pack. Well-fed, with a defined powerful body, he crouched in front of me. If he stood upright, he would be close to seven feet tall. At least two hundred pounds, all of it hard muscle and sharp claws. The brown pattern on his back was almo...

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