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Dark and Stormy Knights

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Elrod's second urban fantasy anthology is not quite as good as 2009's Mean Streets, though the one author both volumes share, Jim Butcher, does his usual top-notch job with the Dresden Files tie-in "Even Hand," a dramatic character study of Chicago crime boss John Marcone and his little-known but powerful drive to protect small children at any cost. Equally as good is Carrie Vaughn's taut and suspenseful "God's Creatures," in which a hunter searches for a werewolf among the residents of a Catholic reform school. Rachel Caine's "Even a Rabbit Will Bite," in which a dragon slayer is rendered redundant by the near extinction of her quarry, is unexpectedly poignant. Six less memorable stories round out the volume.

* * *










* * *





The problem with leucrocotta blood is that it stinks to high heaven. It’s also impossible to get off your boots, particularly if the leucrocotta condescended to void its anal glands on you right before you chopped its head off.

I sat on the bench in the Mercenary Guild locker room and pondered my noxious footwear. The boots were less than a year old. And I didn’t have money to buy a new pair.

“Tomato juice, Kate,” one of the mercs offered. “Will take it right out.”

Now he’d done it. I braced myself.

A woman in the corner shook her head. “That’s for skunks. Try baking soda.”

“You have to go scientific about it. Two parts hydrogen peroxide to four parts water.”

“A quart of water and a tablespoon of ammonia.”

“What you need to do is piss on it. . . .”

Every person in the locker room knew my boots were shot. Unfortunately, stain removal methods was one of those troublesome subjects somewhere between relationship issues and mysterious car noises. Everybody was an;  expert, everybody had a cure, and they all fell over themselves to offer their advice.

The electric bulbs blinked and faded. Magic flooded the world in a silent rush, smothering technology. Twisted tubes of feylanterns ignited with pale blue on the walls as the charged air inside them interacted with magic. A nauseating stench, reminiscent of a couple of pounds of shrimp left in the sun for a week, erupted from my boots. There were collective grunts of “Ugh” and “Oh God,” and then everybody decided to give me lots of personal space.

We lived in a post-Shift world. One moment magic dominated, fueling spells and giving power to monsters, and the next it vanished as abruptly as it appeared. Cars started, electricity flowed, and mages became easy prey to a punk with a gun. Nobody could predict when magic waves would come or how long they would last. That’s why I carried a sword. It always worked.

Mark appeared in the doorway. Mark was the Guild’s equivalent of middle management, and he looked the part—his suit was perfectly clean and cost more than I made in three months, his dark hair was professionally trimmed, and his hands showed no calluses. In the crowd of working-class thugs, he stood out like a sore thumb and was proud of it, which earned him the rank and file’s undying hatred.

Mark’s expressionless stare fastened on me. “Daniels, the clerk has a gig ticket for you.”

Usually the words “gig ticket” made my eyes light up. I needed money. I always needed money. The Guild zoned the jobs, meaning that each merc had his own territory. If a job fell in your territory, it was legitimately yours. My territory was near Savannah, basically in the sparsely populated middle of nowhere, and good gigs didn’t come my way too often. The only reason I ended up in Atlanta this time was that my part-time partner in crime, Jim, needed help clearing a pack of grave-digging leucrocottas from Westview Cemetery. He’d cut me in on his gig.

Under normal circumstances I would’ve jumped on the chance to earn extra cash, but I had spent most of the last twenty-four hours awake and chasing hyena-sized creatures armed with badgerlike jaws full of extremely sharp teeth. And Jim bailed on me midway through it. Some sort of Pack business. That’s what I get for pairing with a werejaguar.

I was tired, dirty, and hungry, and my boots stank.

“I just finished a job.”

“It’s a blue gig.”

Blue gig meant double rate.

Mac, a huge hulk of a man, shook his head, presenting me with a view of his mangled left ear. “Hell, if she doesn’t want it, I’ll take it.”

“No, you won’t. She’s licensed for bodyguard detail and you aren’t.”

I bloody hated bodyguard detail. On regular jobs, I had to depend only on myself. But bodyguard detail was a couple’s kind of dance. You had to work with the body you guarded, and in my experience, bodies proved uncooperative.

“Why me?”

Mark shrugged. “Because I have no choice. I have Rodriguez and Castor there now, but they just canceled on me. If you don’t take the gig, I’ll have to track down someone who will. My pain, your gain.”

Canceled wasn’t good. Rodriguez was a decent mage, and Castor was tough in a fight. They wouldn’t bail from a well-paying job unless it went sour.

“I need someone there right now. Go there, babysit the client through the night, and in the morning I’ll have a replacement lined up. In or out, Daniels? It’s a high-profile client, and I don’t like to keep him waiting.”

The gig smelled bad. “How much?”

“Three grand.”

Someone whistled. Three grand for a night of work. I’d be insane to pass on it. “In.”


I started to throw my stink-bomb boots into the locker but stopped myself. I had paid a lot for them, and they should have lasted for another year at least; but if I put them into my locker, it would smell forever. Sadly the boots were ruined. I tossed them into the trash, pulled on my old spare pair, grabbed my sword, and headed out of the locker room to get the gig ticket from the clerk.

When I rode into Atlanta, the magic was down, so I had taken Betsi, my old dented Subaru. With magic wave in full swing, my gasoline-guzzling car was about as mobile as a car-size rock, but since I was technically doing the Guild a favor, the clerk provided me with a spare mount. Her name was Peggy, and judging by the wear on her incisors, she’d started her third decade some years ago. Her muzzle had gone gray, her tail and mane had thinned to stringy tendrils, and she moved with ponderous slowness. I’d ridden her for the first fifteen minutes, listening to her sigh, and then guilt got the better of me and I decided to walk the rest of the way. I didn’t have to go far. According to the directions, Champion Heights was only a couple miles away. An extra ten minutes wouldn’t make that much difference.

Around me a broken city struggled to shrug off winter, fighting the assault of another cold February night. Husks of once mighty skyscrapers stabbed through the melting snowdrifts encrusted with dark ice. Magic loved to feed on anything technologically complex, but tall office towers proved particularly susceptible to magic-induced erosion. Within a couple of years of the first magic wave they shuddered, crumbled, and fell one by one, like giants on sand legs, spilling mountains of broken glass and twisted guts of metal framework onto the streets.

The city grew around the high-tech corpses. Stalls and small shops took the place of swanky coffee joints and boutiques. Wood-and-brick houses, built by hand and no taller than four floors high, replaced the high-rises. Busy streets, once filled with cars and buses, now channeled a flood of horses, mules, and camels. During rush hour the stench alone put hair on your chest. But now, with the last of the sunset dying slowly above the horizon, the city lay empty. Anyone with a crumb of sense hurried home. The night belonged to monsters, and monsters were always hungry.

The wind picked up, driving dark clouds across the sky and turning my bones into icicles. It would storm soon. Here’s hoping Champion Heights, my client’s humble abode, had someplace I could hide Peggy from the sleet.

We picked our way through Buckhead, Peggy’s hooves making loud clopping noises in the twilight silence of the deserted streets. The night worried me little. I looked too poor and too mean to provide easy pickings, and nobody in his right mind would try to steal Peggy. Unless a gang of soap-making bandits lurked about, we were safe enough. I checked the address again. Smack in the middle of Buckhead. The clerk said I couldn’t miss it. Pretty much a guarantee I’d get lost.

I turned the corner and stopped.

A high-rise towered over the ruins. It shouldn’t have existed, but there it was, a brick-and-concrete tower silhouetted against the purple sky. At least fifteen floors, maybe more. Pale tendrils of haze clung to it. It was so tall that the top floor of it still reflected the sunset, while the rest of the city lay steeped in shadow.

“Pinch me, Peggy.”

Peggy sighed, mourning the fact that she was paired with me.

I petted her gray muzzle. “Ten to one that’s Champion Heights. Why isn’t it laying in shambles?”

Peggy snorted.

“You’re right. We need a closer look.”

We wound through the labyrinth of streets, closing in on the tower. My paper said the client’s name was Saiman. No indication if it was his last or first name. Perhaps he was like Batman, one of a kind. Of course, Batman wouldn’t have to hire bodyguards.

“You have to ask yourself, Peggy, who would pay three grand for a night of work and why. I bet living in that tower isn’t cheap, so Saiman has money. Contrary to popular opinion, people who have money refuse to part with it, unless they absolutely have to do it. Three grand means he’s in big trouble and we’re walking into something nasty.”

Finally we landed in a vast parking lot, empty save for a row of cars near the front. Gray Volvo, black Cadillac, even a sleek gunmetal Lamborghini. Most vehicles sported a bloated hood—built to accommodate a charged water engine. The water-engine cars functioned during magic waves by using magic-infused water instead of gasoline. Unfortunately, they took a good fifteen minutes of hard chanting to start, and when they did spring into action, they attained a maximum speed of forty-five miles per hour while growling, snarling, and thundering loud enough to force a deaf man to file a noise complaint.

A large white sign waited past the cars. A black arrow pointed to the right. Above the arrow in black letters was written, “Please stable your mounts.” I looked to the right and saw a large stable and a small guardhouse next to it.

It took me a full five minutes to convince the guards I wasn’t a serial killer in disguise, but finally Peggy relaxed in a comfortable stall, and I climbed the stone stairs to Champion Heights. As I looked, the concrete-and-brick wall of the high-rise swam out of focus, shimmered, and turned into a granite crag.


I squinted at the wall and saw the faint outline of bricks within the granite. Interesting.

The stairs brought me to the glass-and-steel front of the building. The same haze that cloaked the building clouded the glass, but not enough to obscure a thick metal grate barring the vestibule. Beyond the grate, a guard sat behind a round counter, between an Uzi and a crossbow. The Uzi looked well maintained. The crossbow bore the Hawkeye logo on its stock—a round bird-of-prey eye with a golden iris—which meant its prong was steel and not cheap aluminum. Probably upward of two hundred pounds of draw weight. At this distance, it would take out a rhino, let alone me.

The guard gave me an evil eye. I leaned to the narrow metal grille and tried to broadcast “trustworthy.”

“I’m here for one fifty-eight.” I pulled out my merc card and held it to the glass.

“Code, please.”

Code? What code? “Nobody said anything about a code.”

The guard leveled a crossbow at me.

“Very scary,” I told him. “One small problem—you shoot me and the tenant in one fifty-eight won’t live through the night. I’m not a threat to you. I’m a bodyguard on the job from the Mercenary Guild. If you call to one fifty-eight and check, they’ll tell you they’re expecting me.”

The guard rose and disappeared into a hallway to the right. A long minute passed. Finally he emerged, looking sour, and pushed a button. The metal grate slid aside.

I walked in. The floor and walls were polished red granite. The air smelled of expensive perfume.

“Fifteenth floor,” the guard said, nodding at the elevator in the back of the room.

“The magic is up.” The elevator was likely dead.

“Fifteenth floor.”

Oy. I walked up to the elevator and pushed the Up button. The metal doors slid open. I got in and selected the fifteenth floor, the elevator closed, and a moment later a faint purring announced the cabin rising. It’s good to be rich.

The elevator spat me out into a hallway lined with a luxurious green carpet. I plodded through it past the door marked 158 to the end of the hallway to the door marked with the EXIT sign and opened it. Stairs. Unfortunately in good repair. The door opened from the inside of the hallway, but it didn’t lock. No way to jam it.

The hallway was T-shaped with only one exit, which meant that potential attackers could come either through the elevator shaft or up the stairs.

I went up to 158 and knocked.

The door shot open. Gina Castor’s dark eyes glared at me. An AK-47 hung off her shoulder. She held a black duffel in one hand and her sword in the other. “What took you so long?”

“Hello to you, too.”

She pushed past me, the thin, slightly stooped Rodriguez following her. “He’s all yours.”

I caught the door before it clicked shut. “Where is the client?”

“Chained to the bed.” They headed to the elevator.


Castor flashed her teeth at me. “You’ll figure it out.”

The elevator’s door slid open, they ducked in, and a moment later I was alone in the hallway, holding the door open like an idiot. Peachy.

I stepped inside and shut the door. A faint spark of magic shot through the metal box of the card-reader lock. I touched it. The lock was a sham. The door was protected by a ward. I pushed harder. My magic crashed against the invisible wall of the spell and ground to a halt. An expensive ward, too. Good. Made my job a hair easier.

I slid the dead bolt shut and turned. I stood in a huge living room, big enough to contain most of my house. A marble counter ran along the wall on my left, sheltering a bar with glass shelves offering everything from Bombay Sapphire to French wines. A large steel fridge sat behind the bar. White, criminally plush carpet, black walls, steel-and-glass furniture, and beyond it all an enormous floor-to-ceiling window presenting the vista of the ruined city, a deep darkness lit here and there by the pale blue of feylanterns.

I stayed away from the window and trailed the wall, punctuated by three doors. The first opened into a laboratory: flame-retardant table and counters supporting row upon row of equipment. I recognized a magic scanner, a computer, and a spectrograph, but the rest was beyond me. No client.

I tried the second door and found a large room. Gloom pooled in the corners. A huge platform bed occupied most of the hardwood floor. Something lay on the bed, hidden under black sheets.


No answer.

Why me?

The wall to the left of the bed was all glass, and beyond the glass, far below, stretched a very hard parking lot, bathed in the glow of feylanterns.

God, fifteen floors was high.

I pulled my saber from the back sheath and padded across the floor to the bed.

The body under the sheets didn’t move.


Another step.

In my head, the creature hiding under the sheets lunged at me, knocking me through the window in an explosion of glass shards to plunge far below. . . . Fatigue was messing with my head.

Another step.

I nudged the sheet with my sword, peeling it back gently.

A man rested on the black pillow. He was bald. His head was lightly tanned, his face neither handsome nor ugly, his features well shaped and pleasant. Perfectly average. His shoulders were nude—he was probably down to his underwear or naked under the sheet.

“Saiman?” I asked softly.

The man’s eyelids trembled. Dark eyes stared at me, luminescent with harsh predatory intelligence. A warning siren went off in my head. I took a small step back and saw the outline of several chains under the sheet. You’ve got to be kidding me. They didn’t just chain him to the bed, they wrapped him up like a Christmas present. He couldn’t even twitch.

“Good evening,” the man said, his voice quiet and cultured.

“Good evening.”

“You’re my new bodyguard, I presume.”

I nodded. “Call me Kate.”

“Kate. What a lovely name. Please forgive me. Normally I would rise to greet a beautiful woman, but I’m afraid I’m indisposed at the moment.”

I pulled back a little more of the sheet, revealing an industrial-size steel chain. “I can see that.”

“Perhaps I could impose on you to do me the great favor of removing my bonds?”

“Why did Rodriguez and Castor chain you?” And where the hell did they find a chain of this size?

A slight smile touched his lips. “I’d prefer not to answer that question.”

“Then we’re in trouble. Clients get restrained when they interfere with the bodyguards’ ability to keep them safe. Since you won’t tell me why the previous team decided to chain you, I can’t let you go.”

The smile grew wider. “I see your point.”

“Does this mean you’re ready to enlighten me?”

“I’m afraid not.”

I nodded. “I see. Well then, I’ll clear the rest of the apartment, and then I’ll come back and we’ll talk some more.”

“Do you prefer brunets or blonds?”


The sheet shivered.

“Quickly, Kate. Brunets or blonds? Pick one.”

Odd bulges strained the sheet. I grabbed the covers and jerked them back.

Saiman lay naked, his body pinned to the bed by the chain. His stomach distended between two loops, huge and bloated. Flesh bulged and crawled under his skin, as if his body were full of writhing worms.

“Blond, I’d say,” Saiman said.

He groaned, his back digging into the sheets. The muscles under his skin boiled. Bones stretched. Ligaments twisted, contorting his limbs. Acid squirted into my throat. I gagged, trying not to vomit.

His body stretched, twisted, and snapped into a new shape: lean, with crisp definition. His jaw widened, his eyes grew larger, his nose gained a sharp cut. Cornsilk blond hair sprouted on his head and reaching down to his shoulders. Indigo flooded his irises. A new man looked at me, younger by about five years, taller, leaner, with a face that was heartbreakingly perfect. Above his waist, he was Adonis. Below his ribs, his body degenerated into a bloated stomach. He looked pregnant.

“You wouldn’t tell me what you preferred,” he said mournfully, his pitch low and husky. “I had to improvise.”

* * *

“What are you?” I kept my sword between me and him.

“Does it really matter?”

“Yes, it does.” When people said shapeshifter, they meant a person afflicted with Lyc-V, the virus that gave its victim the ability to shift into an animal. I’d never seen one who could freely change its human form.

Saiman made a valiant effort to shrug. Hard to shrug with several pounds of chains on your shoulders, but he managed to look nonchalant doing it.

“I am me.”

Oh boy. “Stay here.”

“Where would I go?”

I left the bedroom and checked the rest of the apartment. The only remaining room contained a large shower stall and a giant bathtub. No kitchen. Perhaps he had food delivered.

Fifteenth floor. At least one guard downstairs, bullet-resistant glass, metal grates. The place was a fortress. Yet he hired bodyguards at exorbitant prices. He expected his castle to be breached.

I headed to the bar, grabbed a glass from under the counter, filled it with water, and took it to Saiman. Changing shape took energy. If he was anything like other shapeshifters, he was dying of thirst and hunger right about now.

Saiman’s gaze fastened on the glass. “Delightful.”

I let him drink. He drained the glass in long, thirsty swallows.

“How many guards are on duty downstairs?”


“Are they employed by the building owners directly?”

Saiman smiled. “Yes. They’re experienced and well paid, and they won’t hesitate to kill.”

So far so good. “When you change shape, do you reproduce internal organs as well?”

“Only if I plan to have intercourse.”

Oh goodie. “Are you pregnant?”

Saiman laughed softly.

“I need to know if you’re going to go into labor.” Because that would just be a cherry on the cake of this job.

“You’re a most peculiar woman. No, I’m most definitely not pregnant. I’m male, and while I may construct a vaginal canal and a uterus on occasion, I’ve never had cause to recreate ovaries. And if I did, I suspect they would be sterile. Unlike the male of the species, women produce all of their gametes during gestation, meaning that when a female infant is born, she will have in her ovaries all of the partially developed eggs she will ever have. The ovaries cannot generate production of new eggs, only the maturation of existing ones. The magic is simply not deep enough for me to overcome this hurdle. Not yet.”

Thank Universe for small favors. “Who am I protecting you from, and why?”

“I’m afraid I have to keep that information to myself as well.”

Why did I take this job again? Ah yes, a pile of money. “Withholding this information diminishes my ability to guard you.”

He tilted his head, looking me over. “I’m willing to take that chance.”

“I’m not. It also puts my life at a greater risk.”

“You’re well compensated for that risk.”

I repressed the urge to brain him with something heavy. Too bad there was no kitchen—a cast-iron frying pan would do the job.

“I see why the first team bailed.”

“Oh, it was the woman,” Saiman said helpfully. “She had difficulty with my metamorphosis. I believe she referred to me as an ‘abomination.’ ”

I rubbed the bridge of my nose. “Let’s try simple questions. Do you expect us to be attacked tonight?”


I figured as much. “With magic or brute force?”


“Is it a hit for hire?”

Saiman shook his head. “No.”

Well, at least something went my way: amateurs were easier to deal with than contract killers.

“It’s personal. I can tell you this much: the attackers are part of a religious sect. They will do everything in their power to kill me, including sacrificing their own lives.”

And we just drove off a cliff in a runaway buggy. “Are they magically adept?”


I leaned back. “So let me summarize. You’re a target of magical kamikaze fanatics, you won’t tell me who they are, why they’re after you, or why you have been restrained?”

“Precisely. Could I trouble you for a sandwich? I’m famished.”

Dear God, I had a crackpot for a client. “A sandwich?”

“Prosciutto and Gouda on sourdough bread, please. A tomato and red onion would be quite lovely as well.”

“Sounds delicious.”

“Feel free to have one.”

“I tell you what, since you refuse to reveal anything that might make my job even a smidgeon easier, how about I make a delicious prosciutto sandwich and taunt you with it until you tell me what I want to know?”

Saiman laughed.

An eerie sound came from the living room—a light click, as if something with long sharp claws crawled across metal.

I put my finger to my lips, freed my saber, and padded out into the living room.

The room lay empty. No intruders.

I stood very still, trying to fade into the black walls.

Moments dripped by.

A small noise came from the left. It was a hesitant, slow clicking, as if some creature slunk in the distance, slowly putting one foot before the other.


Definitely a claw.


I scrutinized the left side of the room. Nothing moved.

Click. Click, click.

Closer this time. Fear skittered down my spine. Fear was good. It would keep me sharp. I kept still. Where are you, you sonovabitch?

Click to the right, and almost immediately a quiet snort to the left. Now we had two invisible intruders. Because one wasn’t hard enough.

An odd scent nipped at my nostrils, a thick, slightly bitter herbal odor. I’d smelled it once before, but I had no clue where or when.

Claws scraped to the right and to the left of me now. More than two. A quiet snort to the right. Another in the corner. Come out to play. Come on, beastie.

Claws raked metal directly in front of me. There was nothing there but that huge window and sloping ceiling above it. I looked up. Glowing green eyes peered at me through the grate of the air duct in the ceiling.

Shivers sparked down my back.

The eyes stared at me, heated with madness.

The screws in the air duct cover turned to the left. Righty tighty, lefty loosey. Smart critter.

The grate fell onto the soft carpet. The creature leaned forward slowly, showing me a long conical head. The herbal scent grew stronger now, as if I’d taken a handful of absinthe wormwood and stuck it up my nose.

Long black claws clutched the edge of the air duct. The beast rocked, revealing its shoulders sheathed in shaggy, hunter green fur.

Bingo. An endar. Six legs, each armed with wicked black claws; preternaturally fast; equipped with an outstanding sense of smell and a big mouth, which hid a tongue lined with hundreds of serrated teeth. One lick and it would scrape the flesh off my bones in a very literal way.

The endars were peaceful creatures. The green fur wasn’t fur at all; it was moss that grew from their skin. They lived underneath old oaks, rooted to the big trees in a state of quiet hibernation, absorbing their nutrients and making rare excursions to the surface to lick the bark and feed on lichens. They stirred from their rest so rarely that pagan Slavs thought they fed on air.

Someone had poured blood under this endar’s oak. The creature had absorbed it, and the blood had driven it crazy. It had burrowed to the surface, where it swarmed with its fellows. Then the same someone, armed with a hell of a lot of magic, had herded this endar and its buddies to this high-rise and released them into the ventilation system so they would find Saiman and rip him apart. They couldn’t be frightened off. They couldn’t be stopped. They would kill anything with a pulse to get to their target, and when the target was dead, they would have to be eliminated. There was no going back from endar madness.

Only a handful of people knew how to control endars.

Saiman had managed to piss off the Russians. It’s never good to piss off the Russians. That was just basic common sense. My father was Russian, but I doubted they would cut me any slack just because I could understand their curses.

The endar gaped at me with its glowing eyes. Yep, mad as a hatter. I’d have to kill every last one of them.

“Well, come on. Bring it.”

The endar’s mouth gaped. It let out a piercing screech, like a circular saw biting into the wood, and charged.

I swung Slayer. The saber’s blade sliced into flesh and the beast crashed to the floor. Thick green blood stained Saiman’s white carpet.

The three other duct covers fell one by one. A stream of green bodies charged toward me. I swung my sword, cleaving the first body in two. It was going to be a long night.

The last of the endars was on the smaller side. Little bigger than a cat. I grabbed it by the scruff of the neck and took it back into the bedroom.

Saiman smiled at my approach. “I take it everything went well?”

“I redecorated.”

He arched his eyebrow again. Definitely mimicking me. “Oh?”

“Your new carpet is a lovely emerald color.”

“I can assure you that carpet is the least of my worries.”

“You’re right.” I brought the endar closer. The creature saw Saiman and jerked spasmodically. Six legs whipped the air, claws out, ready to rend and tear. The beast’s mouth gaped, releasing a wide tongue studded with rows and rows of conical teeth.

“You provoked the volkhvi.” It was that or the Russian witches. I bet on the volkhvi. The witches would’ve cursed us by now.


“The volkhvi are bad news for a number of reasons. They serve pagan Slavic gods, and they have thousands of years of magic tradition to draw on. They’re at least as powerful as Druids, but unlike Druids, who are afraid to sneeze the wrong way or someone might accuse them of bringing back human sacrifices, the volkhvi don’t give a damn. They won’t stop, either. They don’t like using the endars, because the endars nourish the forest with their magic. Whatever you did really pissed them off.”

Saiman pondered me as if I were some curious bug. “I wasn’t aware that the Guild employed anyone with an education.”

“I’ll hear it. All of it.”

“No.” He shook his head. “I do admire your diligence and expertise. I don’t want you to think it’s gone unnoticed.”

I dropped the endar onto Saiman’s stomach. The beast clawed at the sheet. Saiman screamed. I grabbed the creature and jerked it up. The beast dragged the sheet with it, tearing it to shreds. Small red scratches marked Saiman’s blob of a stomach.

“I’ll ask again. What did you do to infuriate the Russians? Consider your answer carefully, because next time I drop this guy, I’ll be slower picking him back up.”

Saiman’s face quivered with rage. “You’re my bodyguard.”

“You can file a complaint, if you survive. You’re putting both of us in danger by withholding information. See, if I walk, I just miss out on some money; you lose your life. I have no problem with leaving you here, and the Guild can stick its thumb up its ass and twirl for all I care. The only thing that keeps me protecting you is professional pride. I hate bodyguard detail, but I’m good at it, and I don’t like to lose a body. It’s in your best interests to help me do my job. Now, I’ll count to three. On three I drop Fluffy here and let it go to town on your gut. He really wants whatever you’re hiding in there.”

Saiman stared at me.

“One. Two. Th—”

“Very well.”

I reached into my backpack and pulled out a piece of wire. Normally I used it for trip traps, but it would make a decent leash. Two minutes later, the endar was secured to the dresser and I perched on the corner of Saiman’s bed.

“Are you familiar with the legend of Booyan Island?”

I nodded. “It’s a mythical island far in the Ocean, behind the Hvalynskii Sea. It’s a place of deep magic where a number of legendary creatures and items are located: Alatyr, the father of all stones; the fiery pillar; the Drevo-Doob, the World Oak; the cave where the legendary sword Kladenets is hidden; the Raven prophet; and so on. It’s the discount warehouse of Russian legends. Any time the folkloric heroes needed a magic object, they made a trip to it.”

“Let’s concentrate on the tree,” Saiman said.

I knew Slavic mythology well enough, but I hadn’t had to use it for a while and I was a bit rusty. “It’s a symbol of nature. Creature of the earth at its roots, the serpent, the frog, and so on. There is a raven with a prophet gift in the branches. Some myths say that there are iron chains wrapped around the tree’s trunk. A black cat walks the chain, telling stories and fables. . . .”

Saiman nodded.

Oh crap. “It’s that damn cat, isn’t it?”

“The oak produces an acorn once every seven years. Seven months, seven days, and seven hours after the acorn falls from the tree, it will crack and grow into the World Oak. In effect, the tree manifests at the location of the acorn for the period of seven minutes.”

I frowned. “Let me guess. You stole the acorn from the Russians and swallowed it.”

Saiman nodded.

“Why? Are you eager to hear a bedtime story?”

“The cat possesses infinite knowledge. Seven minutes is time enough to ask and hear an answer to one question. Only the owner of the acorn can ask the question.”

I shook my head. “Saiman, nothing is free. You have to pay for everything, knowledge included. What will it cost you to ask a question?”

“The price is irrelevant if I get an answer.” Saiman smiled.

I sighed. “Answer my question: Why do smart people tend to be stupid?”

“Because we think we know better. We think that our intellect affords us special privileges and lets us beat the odds. That’s why talented mathematicians try to defraud casinos and young brilliant mages make bargains with forces beyond their control.”

Well, he answered the question.

“When is the acorn due for its big kaboom?”

“In four hours and forty-seven minutes.”

“The volkhvi will tear this high-rise apart stone by stone to get it back, and I’m your last line of defense?”

“That’s an accurate assessment. I did ask for the best person available.”

I sighed. “Still want that sandwich?”

“Very much.”

I headed to the door.



“The endar?”

I turned to him. “Why were you chained?”

Saiman grimaced. “The acorn makes it difficult to control my magic. It forces me to continuously change shape. Most of the time I’m able to keep the changes subtle, but once in a while the acorn causes contortions. Gina Castor walked in on me during such a moment. I’m afraid I was convulsing, so my recollection may be somewhat murky, but I do believe I had at least one partially formed breast and three arms. She overreacted. Odd, considering her profile.”

“Her profile?”

“I studied my bodyguards very carefully,” Saiman said. “I handpicked three teams. The first refused to take the job, the second was out due to injuries. Castor and Rodriguez were my third choice.”

I went back to the bed and ducked under it. They’d chained him with a small padlock. Lock picking wasn’t my strong suit. I looked around and saw the small key on the dresser. It took me a good five minutes to unwrap him.

“Thank you.” He rose, rubbing his chest, marked by red pressure lines. “May I ask why?”

“Nobody should die chained to the bed.”

Saiman stretched. His body swelled, twisted, growing larger, gaining breadth and muscle. I made a valiant effort to not vomit.

Saiman’s body snapped. A large, perfectly sculpted male looked at me. Soft brown hair framed a masculine face. He would make any bodybuilder gym proud. Except for the bloated gut.

“Is he preferable to the previous attempt?” Saiman asked.

“There is more of you to guard now. Other than that, it makes no difference to me.”

I headed into the living room. He followed me, swiping a luxurious robe off a chair.

We stepped into the living room. Saiman stopped.

The corpses of endars had melted into puddles of green. Thin stalks of emerald green moss sprouted from the puddles, next to curly green shoots of ferns and tiny young herbs.

“The endars nourish the forest,” I told him.

He indicated the completely green carpet with his hand. “How many were there?”

“A few. I lost count.”

Saiman’s sharp eyes regarded my face. “You’re lying. You know the exact number.”


I zeroed in on the fridge. No telling when the next attack would come, and I was starving. You can do without sleep or without food, but not without both and sleep wasn’t an option.

Saiman trailed me, taking the seat on the outer side of the counter. “Do you prefer women?”


He frowned, belting the robe. “It’s the stomach, isn’t it?”

I raided the fridge. He had enough deli meat to feed an army. I spread it out on the bar’s counter. “What do you do for a living, Saimain?”

“I collect information and use it to further my interests.”

“It seems to pay well.” I nodded to indicate the apartment.

“It does. I also possess an exhaustive knowledge of various magic phenomena. I consult various parties. My fee varies between thirty-six hundred and thirty-nine hundred dollars, depending on the job and the client.”

“Thirty-six hundred dollars per job?” I bit into my sandwich. Mmm, salami.

“Per hour.”

I choked on my food. He looked at me with obvious amusement.

“The term ‘highway robbery’ comes to mind,” I managed finally.

“Oh, but I’m exceptionally good at what I do. Besides, the victims of highway robbery have no choice in the matter. I assure you, I don’t coerce my clients, Kate.”

“I’m sure. How did we even get to this point? The stratospheric fee ruined my train of thought.”

“You stated that you prefer men to women.”

I nodded. “Suppose you get a particularly sensitive piece of information. Let’s say a business tip. If you act on the tip, you could make some money. If you sell it, you could make more money. If both you and your buyer act on the tip, you both would make money, but the return for each of you would be significantly diminished. Your move?”

“Either sell the information or act on it. Not both.”


Saiman shrugged. “The value of the information increases with its exclusivity. A client buying such knowledge has an expectation of such exclusivity. It would be unethical to undermine it.”

“It would be unethical for me to respond to your sexual overtures. For the duration of the job, you’re a collection of arms and legs which I have to keep safe. I’m most effective if I’m not emotionally involved with you on any level. To be blunt, I’m doing my best to regard you as a precious piece of porcelain I have to keep out of harm’s way.”

“But you do find this shape sexually attractive?”

“I’m not going to answer this question. If you pester me, I will chain you back to the bed.”

Saiman raised his arm, flexing a spectacular biceps. “This shape has a lot of muscle mass.”

I nodded. “In a bench-pressing contest you would probably win. But we’re not bench pressing. You might be stronger, but I’m well trained. If you do want to try me, you’re welcome to it. Just as long as we agree that once your battered body is chained safely in your bed, I get to say, ‘I told you so.’ ”

Saiman arched his eyebrows. “Try it?”

“And stop that.”

“Stop what?”

“Stop mimicking my gestures.”

He laughed. “You’re a most peculiar person, Kate. I find myself oddly fascinated. You have obvious skill.” He indicated the budding forest in his living room. “And knowledge to back it up. Why aren’t you among the Guild’s top performers?”

Because being in top anything means greater risk of discovery. I was hiding in plain sight and doing a fairly good job of it. But he didn’t need to know that. “I don’t spend much time in Atlanta. My territory is in the Lowcountry. Nothing much happens there, except for an occasional sea serpent eating shrimp out of the fishing nets.”

Saiman’s sharp eyes narrowed. “So why not move up to the city? Better jobs, better money, more recognition?”

“I like my house where it is.”

Something bumped behind the front door. I swiped Slayer off the counter. “Bedroom. Now.”

“Can I watch?”

I pointed with the sword to the bedroom.

Saiman gave an exaggerated sigh. “Very well.”

He went to the bedroom. I padded to the door and leaned against it, listening.


I waited, sword raised. Something waited out there in the hallway. I couldn’t hear it, but I sensed it. It was there.

A quiet whimper filtered through the steel of the door. A sad, lost, feminine whimper, like an old woman crying quietly in mourning.

I held very still. The apartment felt stifling and crowded in. I would’ve given anything for a gulp of fresh air right about now.

Something scratched at the door. A low mutter floated through, whispered words unintelligible.

God, what was it with the air in this place? The place was stale and musty, like a tomb.

A feeling of dread flooded me. Something bad was in the apartment. It hid in the shadows under the furniture, in the cabinets, in the fridge. Fear squirmed through me. I pressed my back against the door, holding Slayer in front of me.

The creature behind the door scratched again, claws against the steel.

The walls closed in. I had to get away from this air. Somewhere out in the open. Someplace where the wind blew under an open sky. Somewhere with nothing to crowd me in.

I had to get out.

If I left, I risked Saiman’s life. Outside, the volkhvi were waiting. I’d be walking right into their arms.

The shadows under the furniture grew longer, stretching toward me.

Get out. Get out now!

I bit my lip. A quick drop of blood burned on my tongue, the magic in it nipping at me. Clarity returned for a second, and light dawned in my head. Badzula. Of course. The endars failed to rip us apart, so the volkhvi went for plan B. If Muhammad won’t go to the mountain, the mountain must come to Muhammad.

Saiman walked out of the bedroom. His eyes were glazed over.


“I must go,” he said. “Must get out.”

“No, you really must not.” I sprinted to him.

“I must.”

He headed to the giant window.

I kicked the back of his right knee. He folded. I caught him on the way down and spun him so he landed on his stomach. He sprawled among the ankle-tall ferns. I locked his left wrist and leaned on him, grinding all of my weight into his left shoulder.

“Badzula,” I told him. “Belorussian creature. Looks like a middle-aged woman with droopy breasts, swaddled in a filthy blanket.”

“I must get out.” He tried to roll over, but I had him pinned.

“Focus, Saiman. Badzula—what’s her power?”

“She incites people to vagrancy.”

“That’s right. And we can’t be vagrants, because if we walk out of this building, both of us will be killed. We have to stay put.”

“I don’t think I can do it.”

“Yes, you can. I’m not planning on getting up.”

“I believe you’re right.” A small measure of rational thought crept into his voice. “I suppose the furniture isn’t really trying to devour us.”

“If it is, I’ll chop it with my sword when it gets close.”

“You can let me up now,” he said.

“I don’t think so.”

We sat still. The air grew viscous like glue. I had to bite it to get any into my lungs.

Muscles crawled under me. Saiman couldn’t get out of my hold, so he decided to shift himself out.

“Do you stock herbs?”

“Yes,” he said.

“Do you have water lily?”



“Laboratory, third cabinet.”

“Good.” I rolled off of him. I’d have only a second to do this, and I had to do it precisely.

Saiman got up to his knees. As he rose, I threw a fast right hook. He never saw it coming and didn’t brace himself. My fist landed on his jaw. His head snapped back. His eyes rolled over and he sagged down.

Lucky. I ran to the lab.

It took a hell of a lot of practice to knock someone out. You needed both speed and power to jolt the head enough to rattle the brain inside the skull but not cause permanent damage. Under normal circumstances, I wouldn’t even try it, but these weren’t normal circumstances. Walls were curving in to eat me.

If I did cause too much damage, he would fix it. Considering what he had done to his body so far, his regeneration would make normal shapeshifters jealous.

Third cabinet. I threw it open and scanned the glass jars. Dread mugged me like a sodden blanket. Ligularia dentata, Ligularia przewalski . . . Latin names, why me? Lilium pardalinum, Lobelia siphilitica. Come on, come on . . . Nymphaea odorata, pond lily. Also known to Russians as odolen-trava, the mermaid flower, an all-purpose pesticide against all things unclean. That would do.

I dashed to the door, twisting the lid off the jar. A gray powder filled it—ground lily petals, the most potent part of the flower. I slid open the lock. The ward drained down, and I jerked the door ajar.

Empty hallway greeted me. I hurled the jar and the powder into the hall. A woman wailed, smoke rose from thin air, and Badzula materialized in the middle of the carpet. Skinny, flabby, filthy, with breasts dangling to her waist like two empty bags, she tossed back grimy, tangled hair and hissed at me, baring stumps of rotten teeth.

“That’s nice. Fuck you, too.”

I swung. It was textbook saber slash, diagonal, from left to right. I drew the entirety of the blade through the wound. Badzula’s body toppled one way, her head rolled the other.

The weight dropped off my shoulders. Suddenly I could breathe, and the building no longer seemed in imminent danger of collapsing and burying me alive.

I grabbed the head, tossed it into the elevator, dragged the body in there, sent the whole thing to the ground floor, sprinted back inside, and locked the door, reactivating the ward. The whole thing took five seconds.

On the floor, Saiman lay unmoving. I checked his pulse. Breathing. Good. I went back to the island. I deserved some coffee after this, and I bet Saiman stocked the good stuff.

* * *

I was sitting by the counter, sipping the best coffee I’d ever tasted, when the big-screen TV on the wall lit up with fuzzy glow. Which was more than a smidgeon odd, considering that the magic was still up and the TV shouldn’t have worked.

I took my coffee and my saber and went to sit on the couch, facing the TV. Saiman still sprawled unconscious on the floor.

The glow flared brighter, faded, flared brighter . . . In ancient times people used mirrors, but really any somewhat reflective surface would do. The dark TV screen was glossy enough.

The glow blazed and materialized into a blurry male. In his early twenties, dark hair, dark eyes.

The man looked at me. “You’re the bodyguard.” His voice carried a trace of Russian accent.

I nodded and slipped into Russian. “Yes.”

“I don’t know you. What you do makes no difference to me. We have this place surrounded. We go in in an hour.” He made a short chopping motion with his hand. “You’re done.”

“I’m shaking with fear. In fact, I may have to take a minute to get my shivers under control.” I drank my coffee.

The man shook his head. “You tell that paskuda, if he let Yulya go, I’ll make sure you both walk out alive. You hear that? I don’t know what he’s got over my wife, but you tell him that. If he wants to live, he has to let her go. I’ll be back in thirty minutes. You tell him.”

The screen faded.

And the plot thickens. I sighed and nudged Saiman with my boot. It took a couple of nudges, but finally he groaned and sat up.

“What happened?”

“You fell.”

“Really? What did I fall into?”

“My fist.”

“That explains the headache.” Saiman looked at me. “This will never happen again. I want to be absolutely clear. Attempt this again and you’re fired.”

I wondered what would happen if I knocked him out again right there, just for kicks.

“Is that my arabica coffee?” he asked.

I nodded. “I will even let you have a cup if you answer my question.”

Saiman arched an eyebrow. “Let? It’s my coffee.”

I saluted him with the mug. “Possession is nine-tenths of the law.”

He stared at me incredulously. “Ask.”

“Are you holding a woman called Yulya hostage?”

Saiman blinked.

“Her husband is very upset and is offering to let us both go if we can produce Yulya for him. Unfortunately, he’s lying and most likely we both would be killed once said Yulya is found. But if you’re holding a woman hostage, you must tell me now.”

“And if I was?” Saiman rubbed his jaw and sat in the chair opposite me.

“Then you’d have to release her immediately or I would walk. I don’t protect kidnappers, and I take a very dim view of violence toward civilians, men or women.”

“You’re a bewildering woman.”

“Saiman, focus. Yulya?”

Saiman leaned back. “I can’t produce Yulya. I am Yulya.”

I suppose I should’ve seen that coming. “The man was under the impression he’s married to her. What happened to the real Yulya?”

“There was never a real Yulya. I will tell you the whole story, but I must have coffee. And nutrients.”

I poured him a cup of coffee. Saiman reached into the fridge and came up with a gallon of milk, a solid block of chocolate, and several bananas.

Chocolate was expensive as hell. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d had some. If I survived this job, I’d buy a couple of truffles.

I watched Saiman load bananas and milk into a manual blender and crank the handle, cutting the whole thing into a coarse mess. Not the chocolate, not the chocolate . . . Yep, threw it in there, too. What a waste.

He poured the concoction into a two-quart jug and began chugging it. Shapeshifters did burn a ton of calories. I sighed, mourning the loss of the chocolate, and sipped my coffee. “Give.”

“The man in question is the son of Pavel Semyonov. He’s the premier volkhv in the Russian community here. The boy’s name is Grigorii, and he’s completely right, I did marry him, as Yulya, of course. The acorn was very well guarded and I needed a way in.”


Saiman smiled. Apparently he thought I’d paid him a compliment. “Are you familiar with the ritual of firing the arrow?”

“It’s an archaic folkloric ritual. The shooter is blindfolded and spun around, so he blindly fires. The flight of the arrow foretells the correct direction of the object the person seeks. If a woman picks up the arrow, she and the shooter are fated to be together.”

Saiman wiped his mouth. “I picked up the arrow. It took me five months from the arrow to the acorn.”

“How long did it take you to con that poor guy into marriage?”

“Three months. The combination of open lust but withholding of actual sex really works wonders.”

I shook my head. “Grigorii is in love with you. He thinks his wife is in danger. He’s trying to rescue her.”

Saiman shrugged. “I had to obtain the acorn. I could say that he’s young and resilient, but really his state of mind is the least of my concerns.”

“You’re a terrible human being.”

“I beg to differ. All people are driven by their primary selfishness. I’m simply more honest than most. Furthermore, he had the use of a beautiful woman, created to his precise specifications, for two months. I did my research into his sexual practices quite thoroughly, to the point of sleeping with him twice as a prostitute to make sure I knew his preferences.”

“If we get out of this, I need to remember never to work for you again.”

Saiman smiled. “But you will. If the price is right.”


“Anyone will work for anyone and anyone will sleep with anyone, if the price is right and the partnership is attractive enough. Suppose I invited you to spend a week here with me. Luxurious clothes. Beautiful shoes.” He looked at my old boots, which were in danger of falling apart. “Magnificent meals. All the chocolate you could ever want.”

So he’d caught me.

“All that for the price of having sex with me. I would even sweeten the deal by assuming a shape preferable to you. Anyone you want. Any shape, any size, any color, any gender. All in total confidentiality. Nobody ever has to know you were here. The offer is on the table.” He placed his hand on the counter, palm down. “Right now. I promise you a week of total bliss—assuming we survive. You’ll never get another chance to be this pampered. All I need from you is one word.”


He blinked. “Don’t you want to think about it?”


He clamped his mouth shut. Muscles played along his jaw. “Why?”

The TV screen ignited. Grigorii appeared in the glow. Saiman strode to the screen with a scowl on his face. “I’ll make it short.” His body boiled, twisted, stretched. I shut my eyes. It was that or lose my precious coffee. When I opened them, a petite red-haired woman stood in Saiman’s place.

“Does this explain things enough?” Saiman asked. “Or do I need to spell it out, Grigorii?”

“You’re her?”


“I don’t believe it.”

Saiman sighed. “Would you like me to list your preferred positions, in the order you typically enjoy them? Shall we speak of intimate things? I could recite most of our conversations word for word, I do have a very precise memory.”

They stared at each other.

“It was all a lie,” Grigorii said finally.

“I call it subterfuge, but yes, in essence, the marriage was a sham. You were set up from the beginning. I was Yulya. I was also Siren and Alyssa, so if you decide to visit that particular house of ill repute again, don’t look for either.”

Oh God.

The glow vanished. Saiman turned to me. “Back to our question. Why?”

“That man loved you enough to risk his own neck to negotiate your release. You just destroyed him, in passing, because you were in a hurry. And you want to know why. If you did that to him, there’s no telling what you’d do to me. Sex is about physical attraction, yes, but it’s also about trust. I don’t trust you. You’re completely self-absorbed and egoistic. You offer nothing I want.”

“Sex is driven by physical attraction. Given the right stimulus, you will sleep with me. I simply have to present you with a shape you can’t resist.”

Saiman jerked, as if struck by a whip, and crashed to the floor. His feet drummed the carpet, breaking the herbs and fledgling ferns. Wild convulsions tore at his body. A blink and he was a mess of arms and legs and bodies. My stomach gave up, and I vomited into the sink.

Ordinarily I’d be on top of him, jamming something in his mouth to keep him from biting himself, but given that he changed shapes as if there were no tomorrow, finding his mouth was a bit problematic.

“Saiman? Talk to me.”

“The acorn . . . It’s coming. Must . . . Get . . . Roof.”

Roof? No roof. We were in the apartment, shielded by a ward. On the roof we’d be sitting ducks. “We can’t do that.”

“Oak . . . Large . . . Cave-in.”

Oh hell. Would it have killed him to mention that earlier? “I need you to walk. You’re too heavy and I can’t carry you while you convulse.”

Little by little, the shudders died. Saiman staggered to his feet. He was back to the unremarkable man I’d first found in the bedroom. His stomach had grown to ridiculous proportions. If he were pregnant, he’d be twelve months along.

“We’ll make a run for it,” I told him.

A faint scratch made me spin. An old man hung outside the window, suspended on a rope. Gaunt, his white beard flapping in the wind, he peered through the glass straight at me. In the split second we looked at each other, twelve narrow stalks unfurled from his neck, spreading into a corona around his head, like a nimbus around the face of a Russian icon. A bulb tipped each stock. A hovala. Shit.

I grabbed Saiman and threw him at the door.

The bulbs opened.

Blinding light flooded the apartment, hiding the world in a white haze. The window behind me exploded. I could barely see. “Stay behind me.”

Shapes dashed through the haze.

I slashed. Slayer connected, encountering resistance. Sharp ice stabbed my left side. I reversed the strike and slashed again. The shape before me crumpled. The second attacker struck. I dodged left on instinct and stabbed my blade at his side. Bone and muscle. Got him between the lower ribs. A hoarse scream lashed my ears. I twisted the blade, ripping the organs, and withdrew.

The hovala hissed at the window. I was still blind.

Behind me the lock clicked. “No!”

I groped for Saiman and hit my forearm on the open door. He ran. Into the hallway, where he was an easy target. I lost my body. Goddamn it.

I sprinted into the hallway, trying to blink the haze from eyes. The stairs were to the left. I ran, half-blind, grabbed the door, and dashed up the stairs.

The blinding flare finally cleared. I hit the door, burst onto the roof, and took a kick to the ribs. Bones crunched. I fell left and rolled to my feet. A woman stood by the door, arms held in a trademark tae kwon do cat stance.

To the right, an older man grappled with Saiman. Six others watched.

The woman sprang into a kick. It was a lovely kick, strong with good liftoff. I sidestepped and struck. By the time she landed, I’d cut her twice. She fell in a crumpled heap.

I flicked the blood off my saber and headed for Saiman.

“You’re Voron’s kid,” one of the men said. “We have no problem with you. Pavel’s entitled. His son just threw himself off the roof.”

Ten to a million the son’s name was Grigorii.

I kept coming. The two men ripped at each other, grappling and snarling like two wild animals. I was five feet away when Pavel head-butted Saiman, jerking his right arm free. A knife flashed; I lunged and saw Pavel slice across Saiman’s distended gut. A bloody clump fell, and I caught it with my left hand purely on instinct.

Magic punched my arm. Pale glow erupted from my fist.

Saiman twisted and stabbed something at Pavel’s right eye. The volkhv stumbled back, a bloody pencil protruding from his eye socket. For a long moment he stood, huge mouth gaping, and then he toppled like a log. Saiman spun about. The muscles of his stomach collapsed, folding, knitting together, turning into a flat washboard wall.

The whole thing took less than three seconds.

I opened my fist. A small gold acorn lay on my palm.

The golden shell cracked. A sliver of green thrust its way up. The acorn rolled off my hand. The green shoot thickened, twisted, surging higher and higher. The air roared like a tornado. Saiman howled, a sound of pure rage. I grabbed him and dragged him with me to the stairs. On the other side, volkhvi ran for the edge of the roof.

The shoot grew, turning dark, sprouting branches, leaves, and bark. Magic roiled.

“It was supposed to be mine,” Saiman snarled. “Mine!”

Light flashed. The roaring ceased.

A colossal oak stood in the middle of the roof, as tall as the building itself, its roots spilling on both sides of the high-rise. Tiny lights fluttered between its branches, each wavy leaf as big as my head. Birds sang in the foliage. A huge metal chain bound the enormous trunk, its links so thick, I could’ve lain down on it. A feeling of complete peace came over me. All my troubles melted into the distance. My pain dissolved. The air tasted sweet, and I drank it in.

At the other side of the roof, the volkhvi knelt.

Metal clinked. A black creature came walking down the bottom loop. As big as a horse, its fur long and black, it walked softly, gripping the links with razor-sharp claws. Its head was that of a lynx. Tall tufts of black fur decorated its ears, and a long black beard stretched from its chin. Its eyes glowed, lit from within.

The cat paused and looked at me. The big maw opened, showing me a forest of white teeth, long and sharp like knives.


I blinked.

“You were the last to hold the acorn,” Saiman whispered. “You must ask the question or it will kill all of us.”

The cat showed me its teeth again.

For anything I asked, there would be a price.

“Ask,” the cat said, its voice laced with an unearthly snarl.

“Ask, Kate,” Saiman prompted.

“Ask!” one of the volkhvi called out.

I took a deep breath.

The cat leaned forward in anticipation.

“Would you like some milk?”

The cat smiled wider. “Yes.”

Saiman groaned.

“I’ll be right back.”

I dashed down the stairs. Three minutes later, the cat lapped milk from Saiman’s crystal punch bowl.

“You could’ve asked anything,” the creature said between laps.

“But you would’ve taken everything,” I told it. “This way all it cost me is a little bit of milk.”

In the morning Peters came to relieve me. Not that he had a particularly difficult job. After the oak disappeared, the volkhvi decided that since both Pavel and Grigorii were dead, all accounts were settled and it was time to call it quits. As soon as we returned to the apartment, Saiman locked himself in the bedroom and refused to come out. The loss of the acorn hit him pretty hard. Just as well. I handed my fussy client off to Peters, retrieved Peggy, and headed back to the Guild.

All in all I’d done spectacularly well, I decided. I lost the client for at least two minutes, let him get his stomach ripped open, watched him stab his attacker in the eye, which was definitely something he shouldn’t have had to do, and cost him his special acorn and roughly five months of work. The fact that my client turned out to be a scumbag and a sexual deviant really had no bearing on the matter.

Some bodyguard I made. Yay. Whoopee. I got to the Guild, surrendered Peggy, and filled out my paperwork. You win some, you lose some. At least Saiman survived. I wouldn’t get paid, but I didn’t end the job with a dead client on my hands.

I grabbed my crap and headed for the doors.

“Kate,” the clerk called from the counter.

I turned. Nobody remembered the clerk’s name. He was just “the clerk.”

He waved an envelope at me. “Money.”

I turned on my foot. “Money?”

“For the job. Client called. He says he’d like to work exclusively with you from now on. What did the two of you do all night?”

“We argued philosophy.” I swiped the envelope and counted the bills. Three grand. What do you know?

I stepped out the doors into an overcast morning. I had been awake for over thirty-six hours. I just wanted to find a quiet spot, curl up, and shut out the world.

A tall, lean man strode to me, tossing waist-long black hair out of the way. He walked like a dancer, and his face would stop traffic. I looked into his blue eyes and saw a familiar smugness in their depths. “Hello, Saiman.”

“How did you know?”

I shrugged and headed on my way.

“Perhaps we can work out a deal,” he said, matching my steps. “I have no intentions of losing that bet. I will find a form you can’t resist.”

“Good luck.”

“I’m guessing you’ll try to avoid me, which would make my victory a bit difficult.”


“That’s why I decided to give you an incentive you can’t refuse. I’m giving you a sixty percent discount on my services. It’s an unbelievable deal.”

I laughed. If he thought I’d pay him twenty-six dollars a minute for his time, he was out of luck.

“Laugh now.” Saiman smiled. “But sooner or later you’ll require my expertise.”

He stopped. I kept on walking, into the dreary sunrise. I had three thousand dollars and some chocolate to buy.

* * *

“Ilona Andrews” is the pseudonym for a husband-and-wife writing team. Ilona is a native-born Russian and Gordon is a former communications sergeant in the U.S. Army. Contrary to popular belief, Gordon was never an intelligence officer with a license to kill, and Ilona was never the mysterious Russian spy who seduced him. They met in college, in English Composition 101, where Ilona got a better grade. (Gordon is still sore about that.)

Gordon and Ilona currently reside in Georgia with their two children and three dogs.

The have coauthored two series, the bestselling urban fantasy of Kate Daniels, and romantic urban fantasy of The Edge, and are working on the next volumes for both.

Visit them on the Web at www.ilona-andrews.com .



A successful murder is like a successful restaurant: ninety percent of it is about location, location, location.

Three men in black hoods knelt on the waterfront warehouse floor, their wrists and ankles trussed with heavy plastic quick-ties. There were few lights. They knelt over a large, faded stain on the concrete floor, left behind by the hypocritically named White Council of Wizards during their last execution.

I nodded to Hendricks, who took the hood off the first man, then stood clear. The man was young and good-looking. He wore an expensive yet ill-fitting suit and even more expensive yet tasteless jewelry.

“Where are you from?” I asked him.

He sneered at me. “What’s it to y—”

I shot him in the head as soon as I heard the bravado in his voice. The body fell heavily to the floor.

The other two jumped and cursed, their voices angry and terrified.

I took the hood off the second man. His suit was a close cousin of the dead man’s, and I thought I recognized its cut. “Boston?” I asked him.

“You can’t do this to us,” he said, more angry than frightened. “Do you know who we are?”

Once I heard the nasal quality of the word “are,” I shot him.

I took off the third man’s hood. He screamed and fell away from me. “Boston,” I said, nodding, and put the barrel of my .45 against the third man’s forehead. He stared at me, showing the whites of his eyes. “You know who I am. I run drugs in Chicago. I run the numbers, the books. I run the whores. It’s my town. Do you understand?”

His body jittered in what might have been a nod. His lips formed the word “yes,” though no sound came out.

“I’m glad you can answer a simple question,” I told him, and lowered the gun. “I want you to tell Mr. Morelli that I won’t be this lenient the next time his people try to clip the edges of my territory.” I looked at Hendricks. “Put the three of them in a sealed trailer and rail-freight them back to Boston, care of Mr. Morelli.”

Hendricks was a large, trustworthy man, his red hair cropped in a crew cut. He twitched his chin in the slight motion that he used for a nod when he disapproved of my actions but intended to obey me anyway.

Hendricks and the cleaners on my staff would handle the matter from here.

I passed him the gun and the gloves on my hands. Both would see the bottom of Lake Michigan before I was halfway home, along with the two slugs the cleaners would remove from the site. When they were done, there would be nothing left of the two dead men but a slight variation on the outline of the stain in the old warehouse floor, where no one would look twice in any case.

Location, location, location.

Obviously, I am not Harry Dresden. My name is something I rarely trouble to remember, but for most of my adult life, I have been called John Marcone.

I am a professional monster.

It sounds pretentious. After all, I’m not a flesh-devouring ghoul, hiding behind a human mask until it is time to gorge. I’m no vampire, to drain the blood or soul from my victim, no ogre, no demon, no cursed beast from the spirit world dwelling amid the unsuspecting sheep of humanity. I’m not even possessed of the mystic abilities of a mortal wizard.

But they will never be what I am. One and all, those beings were born to be what they are.

I made a choice.

I walked outside of the warehouse and was met by my consultant, Gard—a tall blond woman without makeup whose eyes continually swept her surroundings. She fell into step beside me as we walked to the car. “Two?”

“They couldn’t be bothered to answer a question in a civil manner.”

She opened the back door for me and I got in. I picked up my personal weapon and slipped it into the holster beneath my left arm while she settled down behind the wheel. She started driving and then said, “No. That wasn’t it.”

“It was business.”

“And the fact that one of them was pushing heroin to thirteen-year-old girls and the other was pimping them out had nothing to do with it,” Gard said.

“It was business,” I said, enunciating. “Morelli can find pushers and pimps anywhere. A decent accountant is invaluable. I sent his bookkeeper back as a gesture of respect.”

“You don’t respect Morelli.”

I almost smiled. “Perhaps not.”

“Then why?”

I did not answer. She didn’t push the issue, and we rode in silence back to the office. As she put the car in park, I said, “They were in my territory. They broke my rule.”

“No children,” she said.

“No children,” I said. “I do not tolerate challenges, Ms. Gard. They’re bad for business.”

She looked at me in the mirror, her blue eyes oddly intent, and nodded.

There was a knock at my office door, and Gard thrust her head in, her phone’s earpiece conspicuous. “There’s a problem.”

Hendricks frowned from his seat at a nearby desk. He was hunched over a laptop that looked too small for him, plugging away at his thesis. “What kind of problem?”

“An Accords matter,” Gard said.

Hendricks sat up straight and looked at me.

I didn’t look up from one of my lawyer’s letters, which I receive too frequently to let slide. “Well,” I said, “we knew it would happen eventually. Bring the car.”

“I don’t have to,” Gard said. “The situation came to us.”

I set aside the finished letter and looked up, resting my fingertips together. “Interesting.”

Gard brought the problem in. The problem was young and attractive. In my experience, the latter two frequently lead to the former. In this particular case, it was a young woman holding a child. She was remarkable—thick, rich, silver white hair, dark eyes, pale skin. She had very little makeup, which was fortunate in her case, since she looked as if she had recently been drenched. She wore what was left of a gray business skirt-suit, had a towel from one of my health clubs wrapped around her shoulders, and was shivering.

The child she held was too young to be in school and was also appealing, with rosy features, white blond hair, and blue eyes. Male or female, it hardly mattered at that age. They’re all beautiful. The child clung to the girl as if it would not be separated, and was also wrapped in a towel.

The girl’s body language was definitely protective. She had the kind of beauty that looked natural and . . . true. Her features and her bearing both spoke of gentleness and kindness.

I felt an immediate instinct to protect and comfort her.

I quashed it thoroughly.

I am not made of stone, but I have found it is generally best to behave as if I am.

I looked across the desk at her and said, “My people tell me you have asked for sanctuary under the terms of the Unseelie Accords, but that you have not identified yourself.”

“I apologize, sir,” she answered. “I was already being indiscreet enough just by coming here.”

“Indeed,” I said calmly. “I make it a point not to advertise the location of my business headquarters.”

“I didn’t want to add names to the issue,” she said, casting her eyes down in a gesture of submission that did not entirely convince me. “I wasn’t sure how many of your people were permitted access to this sort of information.”

I glanced past the young woman to Gard, who gave me a slow, cautious nod. Had the girl or the child been other than they appeared, Gard would have indicated in the negative. Gard costs me a fortune and is worth every penny.

Even so, I didn’t signal either her or Hendricks to stand down. Both of them watched the girl, ready to kill her if she made an aggressive move. Trust, but verify—that the person being trusted will be dead if she attempts betrayal.

“That was most considerate of you, Justine.”

The girl blinked at me several times. “Y-you know me.”

“You are a sometimes associate of Harry Dresden,” I said. “Given his proclivities about those he considers to be held under his aegis, it is sensible to identify as many of them as possible. For the sake of my insurance rates, if nothing else. Gard.”

“Justine, no last name you’ll admit to,” Gard said calmly, “currently employed as Lara Raith’s secretary and personal aide. You are the sometimes lover of Thomas Raith, a frequent ally of Dresden’s.”

I spread my hands slightly. “I assume the ‘j’ notation at the bottom of Ms. Raith’s typed correspondence refers to you.”

“Yes,” Justine said. She had regained her composure quickly—not something I would have expected of the servitor of a vampire of the White Court. Many of the . . . people, I suppose, I’d seen there had made lotus-eaters look self-motivated. “Yes, exactly.”

I nodded. “Given your patron, one is curious as to why you have come to me seeking protection.”

“Time, sir,” she replied quietly. “I lacked any other alternative.”

Someone screamed at the front of the building.

My headquarters shifts position irregularly, as I acquire new buildings. Much of my considerable wealth is invested in real estate. I own more of the town than any other single investor. In Chicago, there is always money to be had by purchasing and renovating aging buildings. I do much of my day-to-day work out of one of my most recent renovation projects, once they have been modified to be suitable places to welcome guests. Then, renovation of the building begins, and the place is generally crowded with contractors who have proven their ability to see and hear nothing.

Gard’s head snapped up. She shook it as if to rid herself of a buzzing fly and said, “A presence. A strong one.” Her blue eyes snapped to Justine. “Who?”

The young woman shuddered and wrapped the towel more tightly about herself. “Mag. A cantrev lord of the fomor.”

Gard spat something in a Scandinavian tongue that was probably a curse.

“Precis, please,” I said.

“The fomor are an ancient folk,” she said. “Water dwellers, cousins of the jotuns. Extremely formidable. Sorcerers, shape changers, seers.”

“And signatories,” I noted.

“Yes,” she said. She crossed to the other side of the room, opened a closet, and withdrew an athletic bag. She produced a simple, rather crude-looking broadsword from it and tossed it toward Hendricks. The big man caught it by the handle and took his gun into his left hand. Gard took a broad-bladed axe out of the bag and shouldered the weapon. “But rarely involved in mortal affairs.”

“Ms. Raith sent me to the fomor king with documents,” Justine said, her voice coming out quietly and rapidly. Her shivering had increased. “Mag made me his prisoner. I escaped with the child. There wasn’t time to reach one of my lady’s strongholds. I came to you, sir. I beg your protection, as a favor to Ms. Raith.”

“I don’t grant favors,” I said calmly.

Mag entered in the manner so many of these self-absorbed supernatural cretins seem to adore. He blasted the door into a cloud of flying splinters with what I presumed was magic.

For God’s sake.

At least the vampires would call for an appointment.

The blast amounted to little debris. After a few visits from Dresden and his ilk, I had invested in cheap, light doors at dramatic (as opposed to tactical) entry points.

The fomor was a pale, repellent humanoid. Seven feet tall, give or take, and distinctly froglike in appearance. He had a bloated belly, legs several inches too long to be proportionately human, and huge feet and hands. He wore a tunic of something that resembled seaweed beneath a long, flapping blue robe covered in the most intricate embroidery I had ever seen. A coronet of coral was bound about his head. His right hand was extended dramatically. He carried a twisted length of wood in his left.

His eyes bulged, jaundice yellow around septic green, and his teeth were rotted and filthy. “You cannot run from me,” he said. His wide mouth made the words seem somehow slurred. “You are mine.”

Justine looked up at me, evidently too frightened to turn her head, her eyes wide with fear. A sharper contrast would have been hard to manage. “Sir. Please.”

I touched a button on the undersurface of my desk, a motion of less than two inches, and then made a steeple of my hands again as I eyed Mag and said, “Excuse me, sir. This is a private office.”

Mag surged forward half a step, his eyes focused on the girl. “Hold your tongue, mortal, if you would keep it.”

I narrowed my eyes.

Is it so much to ask for civility?

“Justine,” I said calmly, “if you would stand aside, please.”

Justine quickly, silently, moved out from between us.

I focused on Mag and said, “They are under my protection.”

Mag gave me a contemptuous look and raised the staff. Darkness lashed at me, as if he had simply reached into the floorboards and cracks in the wall and drawn it into a sizzling sphere the size of a bowling ball.

It flickered away to nothingness about a foot in front of my steepled hands.

I lifted a finger and Hendricks shot Mag in the back. Repeatedly.

The fomor went down with a sound like a bubbling teakettle, whipped onto his back as if the bullets had been a minor inconvenience, and raised the stick to point at Hendricks.

Gard’s axe smashed it out of his grip, swooped back up to guard, and began to descend again.

“Stop,” I said.

Gard’s muscles froze just before she would have brought down the axe onto Mag’s head. Mag had one hand uplifted, surrounded in a kind of negative haze, his long fingers crooked at odd angles—presumably some kind of mystic defense.

“As a freeholding lord of the Unseelie Accords,” I said, “it would be considered an act of war if I killed you out of hand, despite your militant intrusion into my territory.” I narrowed my eyes. “However, your behavior gives me ample latitude to invoke the defense of property and self clause. I will leave the decision to you. Continue this asinine behavior, and I will kill you and offer a weregild to your lord, King Corb, in accordance with the conflict resolution guidelines of section two, paragraph four.”

As I told you, my lawyers send me endless letters. I speak their language.

Mag seemed to take that in for a moment. He looked at me, then Gard. His eyes narrowed. They tracked back to Hendricks, his head hardly moving, and he seemed to freeze when he saw the sword in Hendricks’s hand.

His eyes flicked to Justine and the child and burned for a moment—not with adoration or even simple lust. There was a pure and possessive hunger there, coupled with a need to destroy that which he desired. I have spent my entire life around hard men. I know that form of madness when I see it.

“So,” Mag said. His eyes traveled back to me and were suddenly heavy-lidded and calculating. “You are the new mortal lord. We half believed that you must be imaginary. That no one could be as foolish as that.”

“You are incorrect,” I said. “Moreover, you can’t have them. Get out.”

Mag stood up. The movement was slow, liquid. His limbs didn’t seem to bend the proper way. “Lord Marcone,” he said, “this affair is no concern of yours. I only wish to take the slaves.”

“You can’t have them. Get out.”

“I warn you,” Mag said. There was an ugly tone in his voice. “If you make me return for her—for them—you will not enjoy what follows.”

“I do not require enjoyment to thrive. Leave my domain. I won’t ask again.”

Hendricks shuffled his feet a little, settling his balance.

Mag gathered himself up slowly. He extended his hand, and the twisted stick leapt from the floor and into his fingers. He gave Gard a slow and well-practiced sneer and said, “Anon, mortal lordling. It is time you learned the truth of the world. It will please me to be your instructor.” Then he turned, slow and haughty, and walked out, his shoulders hunching in an odd, unsettling motion as he moved.

“Make sure he leaves,” I said quietly.

Gard and Hendricks followed Mag from the room.

I turned my eyes to Justine and the child.

“Mag,” I said, “is not the sort of man who is used to disappointment.”

Justine looked after the vanished fomor and then back at me, confusion in her eyes. “That was sorcery. How did you . . . ?”

I stood up from behind my desk and stepped out of the copper circle set into the floor around my chair. It was powered by the sorcerous equivalent of a nine-volt battery, connected to the control on the underside of my desk. Basic magical defense, Gard said. It had seemed like nonsense to me—it clearly was not.

I took my gun from its holster and set it on my desk.

Justine took note of my reply.

Of course, I wouldn’t give the personal aide of the most dangerous woman in Chicago information about my magical defenses.

There was something hard and not at all submissive in her eyes. “Thank you, sir, for . . .”

“For what?” I said very calmly. “You understand, do you not, what you have done by asking for my help under the Accords?”


“The Accords govern relations between supernatural powers,” I said. “The signatories of the Accords and their named vassals are granted certain rights and obligations—such as offering a warning to a signatory who has trespassed upon another’s territory unwittingly before killing him.”

“I know, sir,” Justine said.

“Then you should also know that you are most definitely not a signatory of the Accords. At best, you qualify in the category of ‘servitors and chattel.’ At worst, you are considered to be a food animal.”

She drew in a sharp breath, her eyes widening—not in any sense of outrage or offense, but in realization. Good. She grasped the realities of the situation.

“In either case,” I continued, “you are property. You have no rights in the current situation, in the eyes of the Accords—and more to the point, I have no right to withhold another’s rightful property. Mag’s behavior provided me with an excuse to kill him if he did not depart. He will not give me such an opening a second time.”

Justine swallowed and stared at me for a moment. Then she glanced down at the child in her arms. The child clung harder to her and seemed to lean somewhat away from me.

One must admire such acute instincts.

“You have drawn me into a conflict which has nothing to do with me,” I said quietly. “I suggest candor. Otherwise, I will have Mr. Hendricks and Ms. Gard show you to the door.”

“You can’t . . . ,” she began, but her voice trailed off.

“I can,” I said. “I am not a humanitarian. When I offer charity it is for tax purposes.”

The room became silent. I was content with that. The child began to whimper quietly.

“I was delivering documents to the court of King Corb on behalf of my lady,” Justine said. She stroked the child’s hair absently. “It’s in the sea. There’s a gate there in Lake Michigan, not far from here.”

I lifted an eyebrow. “You swam?”

“I was under the protection of their courier, going there,” Justine said. “It’s like walking in a bubble of air.” She hitched the child up a little higher on her hip. “Mag saw me. He drove the courier away as I was leaving and took me to his home. There were many other prisoners there.”

“Including the child,” I guessed. Though it probably didn’t sound that way.

Justine nodded. “I . . . arranged for several prisoners to flee Mag’s home. I took the child when I left. I swam out.”

“So you are, in effect, stolen property in possession of stolen property,” I said. “Novel.”

Gard and Hendricks came back into the office.

I looked at Hendricks. “My people?”

“Tulane’s got a broken arm,” he said. “Standing in that asshole’s way. He’s on the way to the doc.”

“Thank you. Ms. Gard?”

“Mag is off the property,” she said. “He didn’t go far. He’s summoning support now.”

“How much of a threat is he?” I asked. The question was legitimate. Gard and Hendricks had blindsided the inhuman while he was focused upon Justine and the child and while he wasted his leading magical strike against my protective circle. A head-on confrontation against a prepared foe could be a totally different proposition.

Gard tested the edge of her axe with her thumb and drew a smooth stone from her pocket. “Mag is a fomor sorcerer lord of the first rank. He’s deadly—and connected. The fomor could crush you without a serious loss of resources. Confrontation would be unwise.”

The stone made a steely, slithery sound as it glided over the axe’s blade.

“There seems little profit to be had, then,” I said. “It’s nothing personal, Justine. Merely business. I am obliged to return stolen property to signatory members of the Accords.”

Hendricks looked at me sharply. He didn’t say anything. He didn’t have to. I already knew the tone of whatever he would say. Are there no prisons, perhaps. Or, No man is an island, entire of itself. It tolls for thee. On and on.

Hendricks has no head for business.

Gard watched me, waiting.

“Sir,” Justine said, her tone measured and oddly formal. “May I speak?”

I nodded.

“She isn’t property,” Justine said, and her voice was low and intense, her eyes direct. “She was trapped in a den of living nightmares, and there was no one to come save her. She would have died there. And I am not letting anyone take her back to that hellhole. I will die first.” The young woman set her jaw. “She is not property, Mr. Marcone. She’s a child.”

I met Justine’s eyes for a long moment.

I glanced aside at Hendricks. He waited for my decision.

Gard watched me. As ever, Gard watched me.

I looked down at my hands, my fingertips resting together with my elbows propped on the desk.

Business came first. Always.

But I have rules.

I looked up at Justine.

“She’s a child,” I said quietly.

The air in the room snapped tight with tension.

“Ms. Gard,” I said, “please dismiss the contractors for the day, at pay. Then raise the defenses.”

She pocketed the whetstone and strode quickly out, her teeth showing, a bounce in her step.

“Mr. Hendricks, please scramble our troubleshooters. They’re to take positions across the street. Suppressed weapons only. I don’t need patrolmen stumbling around in this. Then ready the panic room.”

Hendricks nodded and got out his cell phone as he left. His huge, stubby fingers flew over its touchscreen as he sent the activation text message. Looking at him, one would not think him capable of such a thing. But that is Hendricks, generally.

I looked at Justine as I rose and walked to my closet. “You will go with the child into the panic room. It is, with the possible exception of Dresden’s home, the most secure location in the city.”

“Thank you,” she said quietly.

I took off my coat and hung it up in the closet. I took off my tie and slipped it over the same hanger. I put my cuff links in my coat pocket, rolled up my sleeves, and skinned out of my gun’s holster. Then I slipped on the armored vest made of heavy scales of composite materials joined to sleeves of quite old-fashioned mail. I pulled an old field jacket, olive drab, over the armor, belted it, holstered my sidearm at my side, opposite a combat knife, and took a military-grade assault shotgun—a weapon every bit as illegal as my pistol in the city of Chicago—from its rack.

“I am not doing it for you, young lady,” I said. “Nor am I doing it for the child.”

“Then why are you doing it?” she asked.

“Because I have rules,” I said.

She shook her head gently. “But you’re a criminal. Criminals don’t have rules. They break them.”

I stopped and looked at her.

Justine blanched and slid a step farther away from me, along the wall. The child made a soft, distressed sound. I beckoned curtly for her to follow me as I walked past her. It took her a moment to do so.


Someone in the service of a vampire ought to have a bit more fortitude.

This panic room looked like every other one I’ve had built: fluorescent lights, plain tile floor, plain dry wall. Two double bunks occupied one end of the room. A business desk and several chairs took up the rest. A miniature kitchen nestled into one corner, opposite the miniature medical station in another. There was a door to a half-bath and a bank of security monitors on the wall between them. I flicked one switch that activated the entire bank, displaying a dozen views from hidden security cameras.

I gestured for Justine to enter the room. She came in and immediately took a seat on the lower bunk of the nearest bed, still holding the child.

“Mag can find her,” Gard told me when we all rendezvoused outside the panic room. “Once he’s inside the building and gets past the forward area, he’ll be able to track her. He’ll head straight for her.”

“Then we know which way he’ll be moving,” I said. “What did you find out about his support?”

“They’re creatures,” Gard said, “actual mortal beings, though like none you’ve seen before. The fomor twist flesh to their liking and sell the results for favors and influence. It was probably the fomor who created those cat-things the Knights of the Blackened Denarius used.”

I twisted my mouth in displeasure at the name. “If they’re mortal, we can kill them.”

“They’ll die hard,” Gard warned me.

“What doesn’t?” I looked up and down the hallway outside the panic room. “I think the primary defense plan will do.”

Gard nodded. She had attired herself in an armored vest not unlike my own over a long mail shirt. Medieval looking, but then modern armorers haven’t aimed their craft at stopping claws of late. Hendricks, standing watch at the end of the hall, had on an armored vest but was otherwise covered in modified motorcyclist’s armor. He carried an assault shotgun like mine, several hand grenades, and that same broadsword.

“Stay here,” I said to Justine. “Watch the door. If anyone but one of us comes down the stairs, shut it.”

She nodded.

I turned and started walking toward the stairway. I glanced at Gard. “What can we expect from Mag?”


Hendricks grunted. Skeptically.

“He’s ancient, devious, and wicked,” Gard clarified. “There is an effectively unlimited spectrum of ways in which he might do harm.”

I nodded. “Can you offer any specific knowledge?”

“He won’t be easy to get to,” she said. “The fomor practice entropy magic. They make the antitechnology effect Dresden puts off look like mild sunspot activity. Modern systems are going to experience problems near him.”

We started up the stairs. “How long before he arrives?”

From upstairs, there was the crash of breaking plate glass. No alarm went off, but there was a buzzing, sizzling sound and a scream—Gard’s outer defenses. Hendricks hit a button on his cell phone and then came with me as I rushed up the remaining stairs to the ground floor.

The lights went out as we went, and Hendricks’s phone sputtered out a few sparks. Battery-powered emergency lights flicked on an instant later. Only about half of them functioned, and most of those were behind us.

Mag had waited for nightfall to begin his attack and then crippled our lights. Quite possibly he assumed that the darkness would give him an overwhelming advantage.

The hubris of some members of the supernatural community is astonishing.

The nightvision scopes mounted on my weapon and Hendricks’s had been custom-made, based off of designs dating back to World War II, before nightvision devices had married themselves to the electronics revolution. They were heavy and far inferior to modern systems—but they would function in situations where electronic goggles would be rendered into useless junk.

We raised the weapons to our shoulders, lined an eye up with the scopes, and kept moving. We reached the first defensive position, folded out the reinforced composite barriers mounted there, and knelt behind them. The ambient light from the city outside and the emergency lights below us was enough for the scopes to do their jobs. I could make out the outline of the hallway and the room beyond. Sounds of quiet movement came closer.

My heart rate had gone up, but not alarmingly so. My hands were steady. My mouth felt dry, and my body’s reaction to the prospect of mortal danger sent ripples of sensation up and down my spine. I embraced the fear and waited.

The fomor’s creatures exploded into the hallway on a storm of frenzied roars. I couldn’t make out many details. They seemed to have been put together on the chassis of a gorilla. Their heads were squashed, ugly-looking things, with wide-gaping mouths full of sharklike teeth. The sounds they made were deep, with a frenzied edge of madness, and they piled into the corridor in a wave of massive muscle.

“Steady,” I murmured.

The creatures lurched as they moved, like cheap toys that had not been assembled properly, but they were fast for all of that. More and more of them flooded into the hallway, and their charge was gaining mass and momentum.

“Steady,” I murmured.

Hendricks grunted. There were no words in it, but he meant, I know.

The wave of fomorian beings got close enough that I could see the patches of mold clumping their fur and tendrils of mildew growing upon their exposed skin.

“Fire,” I said.

Hendricks and I opened up.

The new military AA-12 automatic shotguns are not the hunting weapons I first handled in my patriotically delusional youth. They are fully automatic weapons with large circular drums that rather resembled the old tommy guns made iconic by my business predecessors in Chicago. One pulls the trigger and shell after shell slams through the weapon. A steel target hit by bursts from an AA-12 very rapidly comes to resemble a screen door.

And we had two of them.

The slaughter was indescribable. It swept like a great broom down that hallway, tearing and shredding flesh, splattering blood on the walls and painting them most of the way to the ceiling. Behind me, Gard stood ready with a heavy-caliber big-game rifle, calmly gunning down any creature that seemed to be reluctant to die before it could reach our defensive point. We piled the bodies so deep that the corpses formed a barrier to our weapons.

“Hendricks,” I said.

The big man was already reaching for the grenades on his belt. He took one, pulled the pin, cooked it for a slow two count, and then flung it down the hall. We all crouched behind the barriers as the grenade went off with a deafening crunch of shock-wave-driven air.

Hendricks threw another one. He might disapprove of killing, but he did it thoroughly.

When the ringing began to fade from my ears, I heard a sound like raindrops. It wasn’t raining, of course—the gunmen in the building across the street had opened fire with silenced weaponry. Bullets whispered in through the windows and hit the floor and walls of the headquarters with innocuous-sounding thumps. Evidently Mag’s servitors had been routed and were trying to flee.

An object the size of Hendricks’s fist appeared from nowhere and arced cleanly through the air. It landed on the floor precisely between the two sheltering panels, a lump of pink-and-gray coral.

Gard hit me with a shoulder and drove me to the ground even as she shouted, “Down!”

The piece of coral didn’t explode. There was a whispering sound, and hundreds of tiny holes appeared in the bloodstained walls and ceiling. Gard let out a pained grunt. My left calf jerked as something pierced it and burned as though the wound had been filled with salt.

I checked Hendricks. One side of his face was covered in a sheet of blood. Small tears were visible in his leathers, and he was beginning to bleed through the holes.

“Get him,” I said to Gard, rising, as another coral spheroid rose into the air.

Before it could get close enough to be a threat, I blew it to powder with my shotgun. And the next and the next, while Gard dropped her rifle, got a shoulder under one of Hendricks’s, and helped him to his feet as if he’d been her weight instead of two hundred and seventy pounds of muscle. She started down the stairs.

A fourth sphere came accompanied by mocking laughter, and when I pulled the trigger again, the weapon didn’t function. Empty. I slapped the coral device out of the air with the shotgun’s barrel and flung myself backward, hoping to clear the level of the floor on the stairwell before the pseudo-grenade detonated. I did not quite make it. Several objects struck my chest and arms, and a hot blade slipped across my unscarred ear, but the armor turned the truly dangerous projectiles.

I broke my arm tumbling backward down the stairs.

More laughter followed me down, but at least the fomor wasn’t spouting some kind of ridiculous monologue.

“I did my best,” came Mag’s voice. “I gave you a chance to return what was mine. But no. You couldn’t keep yourself from interfering in my affairs, from stealing my property. And so now you will reap the consequences of your foolishness, little mortal. . . .”

There was more, but there is hardly a need to go into details. Given a choice between that egocentric drivel and a broken arm, I prefer the latter. It’s considerably less excruciating.

Gard hauled me to my feet by my coat with her spare hand. I got under the stunned Hendricks’s other arm and helped them both down the rest of the stairs. Justine stood in the doorway of the safe room, at the end of the hallway of flickering lights, her face white-lipped but calm.

Gard helped me get Hendricks to the door of the room and turned around. “Close the door. I may be able to discourage him out here.”

“Your home office would be annoyed with me if I wasted your life on such a low-percentage proposition,” I said. “We stick to the plan.”

The valkyrie eyed me. “Your arm is broken.”

“I was aware, thank you,” I said. “Is there any reason the countermeasure shouldn’t work?”

Mag was going on about something, coming down the steps one at a time, making a production of every footfall. I ignored the ass.

“None that I know of,” Gard admitted. “Which is not the same answer as ‘no.’ ”

“Sir,” Justine said.

“We planned for this—or something very like it. We don’t split up now. End of discussion. Help me with Hendricks.”

“Sir,” Justine said.

I looked up to see Mag standing on the landing, cloaked in random shadows, smiling. The emergency lights on the stairwell blew out with a melodramatic shower of dying sparks.

“Ah,” I said. I reached inside the safe-room door, found the purely mechanical pull-cord wrapped unobtrusively around a nail head on the wall, and gave it a sharp jerk.

It set off the antipersonnel mines built into the wall of the landing.

There were four of them, which meant that a wash of fire and just under three-thousand-round shot acquainted themselves with the immediate vicinity of the landing and with Mag. A cloud of flame and flying steel enveloped the fomor, but at the last instant the swirling blackness around him rose up like a living thing, forming a shield between Mag and the oncoming flood of destruction.

The sound of the explosions was so loud that it demolished my hearing for a moment. It began to return to me as the cloud of smoke and dust on the landing began to clear. I could hear a fire alarm going off.

Mag, smudged and blackened with residue but otherwise untouched, made an irritated gesture, and the fire alarm sparked and fizzled—but not before setting off the automatic sprinklers. Water began pouring down from spigots in the ceiling.

Mag looked up at the water and then down at me, and his too-wide smile widened even more. “Really?” he asked. “Water? Did you actually think water would be a barrier to the magic of a fomor lord?”

Running water was highly detrimental to mortal magic, or so Gard informed me, whether it was naturally occurring or not. The important element was quantity. Enough water would ground magic just as it could conduct electricity and short-circuit electronics. Evidently Mag played by different rules.

Mag made a point to continue down the stairs at exactly the same pace. He was somewhat hampered in that several of the stairs had been torn up rather badly in the explosion, but he made it to the hallway. Gard took up a position in the middle of the hallway, her axe held straight up beside her in both arms like a baseball player’s bat.

I helped Hendricks into the safe room and dumped him on a bunk, out of any line of fire from the hallway. Justine took one look at his face and hurried over to the medical station, where she grabbed a first-aid kit. She rushed back to Hendricks’s side. She broke open the kit and started laying out the proper gear for getting a clear look at a bloody wound and getting the bleeding stopped. Her hands flew with precise speed. She’d had some form of training.

From the opposite bunk, the child watched Justine with wide blue eyes. She was naked and had been crying. The tears were still on her little cheeks. Even now, her lower lip had begun to tremble.

But so far as anyone else knew, I was made of stone.

I turned and crossed the room. I sat down at the desk, a copy of the one in my main office. I put my handgun squarely in front of me. The desk was positioned directly in line with the door to the panic room. From behind the desk, I could see the entire hallway clearly.

Mag stepped forward and moved a hand as though throwing something. I saw nothing, but Gard raised her axe in a blocking movement, and there was a flash of light, and the image of a Norse rune, or something like it, was burned onto my retina. The outer edge of Gard’s mail sleeve on her right arm abruptly turned black and fell to dust, so that the sleeve split and dangled open.

Gard took a grim step back as Mag narrowed his jaundiced eyes and lifted the crooked stick. Something that looked like the blend of a lightning bolt and an eel lashed through the air toward Gard, but she caught it on the broad blade of her axe, and there was another flash of light, another eye-searing rune. I heard her cry out, though, and saw that the edges of her fingernails had been burned black.

Step by step she fell back, while Mag hammered at her with things that made no sense, many of which I could not even see. Each time, the rune-magic of that axe defeated the attack—and each time, it seemed to cost her something. A lightly singed face here. A long, shallow cut upon her newly bared arm there. And the runes, I saw, were each in different places on the axe, being burned out one by one. Gard had a finite number of them.

As Gard’s heels touched the threshold of the safe room, Mag let out a howl and threw both hands out ahead of him. An unseen force lifted Gard from her feet and flung her violently across the room, over my desk, and into the wall. She hit with bone-crushing force and slid down limply.

I faced the inhuman sorcerer alone.

Mag walked slowly and confidently into my safe room and stared at me across my desk. He was breathing heavily, from exertion or excitement or both. He smiled, slowly, and waved his hand again. An unpleasant shimmer went through the air, and I glanced down to see rust forming on the exposed metal of my gun, while cracking began to spread through the plastic grip.

“Go ahead, mortal,” Mag said, drawing out the words. “Pick up the gun. Try it. The crafting of the weapon is fine, mortal, but you are not the masters of the world that you believe yourselves to be. Even today’s cleverest smiths are no match for the magic of the fomor.”

I inclined my head in agreement. “Then I suppose,” I said, “that we’ll just have to do this old school.”

I drew the eighteenth-century German dragoon pistol from the open drawer beside my left hand, aimed, and fired. The ancient flintlock snapped forward, ignited the powder in the pan, and roared, a wash of unnatural blue white fire blazing forth from the antique weapon. I almost fancied that I could see the bullet, spinning and tumbling, blazing with its own tiny rune.

Though Mag’s shadows leapt up to defend him, he had expended enormous energy moving through the building, hurling attack after attack at us. More energy had to be used to overcome the tremendous force of the claymores that had exploded virtually in his face. Perhaps, at his full strength, at the height of his endurance, his powers would have been enough to turn even the single, potent attack that had been designed to defeat them.

From the beginning, the plan had been to wear him down.

The blue bolt of lead and power from the heavy old flintlock pierced Mag’s defenses and body in the same instant and with the same contemptuous energy.

Mag blinked at me, then lowered his head to goggle at the smoking hole in his chest as wide as my thumb. His mouth moved as he tried to gabble something, but no sound came out.

“Idiot,” I said coldly. “It will be well worth the weregild to be rid of you.”

Mag lurched toward me for a moment, intent up