Today we have a special late post. We are lucky enough to have a long excerpt from Magic Rises. This highly anticipated read is the cause of our weekly Kate Daniels series read-along as we prepare for its release on the 30th of July. We would like to thank Ilona Andrews for agreeing to share this with us and if you haven’t already check out our earlier post today which was an interview with Ilona. Grab your favorite afternoon beverage and settle in to enjoy. Happy reading!
I climbed the Stairs of Doom to the top floor. I had wanted to chase Curran down, but Julie was still freaked out and Meredith ping-ponged from hugging one daughter to crying over another. She didn’t want us to induce a coma. She wanted more panacea and couldn’t understand that there was none to be had. It took the three of us—Doolittle, Julie, and me—over an hour to convince her that Maddie needed to be sedated. By the time I finally left the medical ward, Curran was long gone. The guards at the entrance saw him walk out, but nobody knew where he went.
I reached the guard station at the entrance to our floor. Living in the Keep was like trying to find privacy in a glass bowl, and the two top floors of the main tower were my refuge. Nobody entered here unless the Beast Lord’s personal guard vetted them, and they weren’t charitable when approving visitors.
Sitting in a dark room watching a child suffer while her mother’s soul died bit by bit was more than I could handle. I needed to do something. I had to vent or I would explode.
I nodded at the guards and went down the hallway to a long glass wall that separated our private gym. I took off my shoes and stepped inside. Weights waited for me, some free, some attached to machines. Several heavy punching bags hung from chains in the corner, next to a speed bag. Swords, axes, and spears rested in the hooks on the wall.
My adoptive father, Voron, died when I was fifteen, and afterward my guardian, Greg Feldman, took care of me. Greg had spent years accumulating a collection of weapons and artifacts, which he left to me. It was all gone now. My aunt paid us a visit and left a chunk of Atlanta a smoking ruin, including the apartment I had inherited from Greg. But I was rebuilding it slowly. I didn’t have any prized weapons in my collection, except for Slayer, my saber, but all of my weapons were functional and well made.
I shrugged off the back sheath with Slayer in it, lowered it to the floor, and did pushups for a couple of minutes to warm up, but my weight wasn’t enough, so I switched to the bag, hammering punches and spinning kicks. The pressure, building in me for the past hours, fueled me. The bag shuddered from the impact.
It wasn’t fair that children went loup. It wasn’t fair that there were no warning signs. It wasn’t fair that I could do absolutely nothing about it. It wasn’t fair that if Curran and I ever had children, I would be like Jennifer, stroking my stomach and terrified of the future. And if my children went loup, I’d have to kill them. The thought spurred me on, whipping me into a frenzy. I wouldn’t be able to do it. If Curran and I had a baby, I couldn’t kill him or her. I didn’t have it in me. Even thinking about it was like the shock of jumping into an iced-over pond.
I worked the bag for the better part of the hour, switched to weights, then did the bag again, trying to drive myself to near exhaustion. If I got tired enough, I would stop thinking.
Exhaustion proved elusive. I’d spent the last few weeks recuperating, training, eating well, and making love whenever I felt like it. I had more stamina than the battery bunny from the old commercials. Eventually I lost myself to the simple physical exertion. When I finally came up for air, sweat slicked my body and my muscles ached.
I took a Cherkassy saber off the wall and went and picked up Slayer. The saber had cost me an arm and a leg many years ago, when I still worked for the Mercenary Guild. I had kept it at my old house, and it had survived my aunt’s reign of terror.
I raised the two swords—the Cherkassy saber was heavier and more curved, while Slayer was lighter and straighter—and began to chop, loosening the muscles. One sword a shiny wide circle in front of me, one behind me, reverse, picking up speed until a whirlwind of sharp steel surrounded me. Slayer sang, whistling as it sliced the air, the pale, opaque blade like the ray of a steel sun. I reversed the direction, switching to the defense, and worked for another five minutes or so; while walking, I turned and saw Barabas standing by the glass.
A weremongoose, Barabas was raised in the bouda clan. They loved him, but it soon became apparent that he didn’t fit into the werehyena hierarchy, so Aunt B, the alpha of Clan Bouda, had offered his services to me. He and Jezebel, the other of Aunt B’s misfits, acted as my nannies. Jezebel watched my back, and Barabas had the unenviable task of steering me through the Pack’s politics and laws.
Slender and pale, Barabas was born with a chip on his shoulder, and he made everything into a statement, including his hair. It stood straight up on his head, forming spiky peaks of brilliant orange and pretending that it was on fire. Today, the hair was particularly aggressive. He looked electrocuted.
Barabas opened the glass door and stepped into the gym, his eyes tracking the movement of my swords. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but sometimes you scare me, Kate.”
“Barabas, you grow two-inch claws and can bench-press a Shetland pony. And you find me scary?”
He nodded. “And I work with some very scary people. That should tell you something. How do you not cut yourself?”
“Practice.” I’d been practicing since I was tall enough to keep my swords from snagging on the ground.
“It looks impressive.”
“That’s mostly the point. This is the style of bladework used when you’re knocked off your horse and surrounded by enemies. It’s designed to let you carve your way out of the crowd as quickly as possible. Most people will see you doing this and decide they should be somewhere else.”
“I don’t doubt it. What if it’s one super swordsman guy that jumps in front of you?” Barabas asked.
I raised Slayer and drew a horizontal eight with the sword, rolling my wrist.
“Butterfly.” I sped it up and added the second sword below. “One butterfly higher, one butterfly lower, switch arms, repeat as necessary. Throat, stomach, throat, stomach. Now he isn’t sure what to guard so either you kill him or he gets out of your way, and you keep walking until you’re out of the crowd. Did you want something?”
“Curran is here.”
“He came in about an hour ago, stood here for a while, watching you, and went upstairs. I think I heard the roof door. I thought that perhaps he would come down, but it’s been a while, so I thought you might want to know.”
I put the saber down, grabbed Slayer and the sheath, and went down the hallway to a short staircase. The first landing led to our private quarters, the second to the roof. The roof was our sanctuary, a place we went to when we wanted to pretend we were alone.
I pushed the heavy metal door open and stepped outside. The roof stretched before me, a wide rectangle of stone, bordered by a three-foot wall. In the distance, at the horizon, the skeleton of Atlanta rose against the backdrop of gray predawn sky. Haze shrouded the ruined buildings, turning them pale blue, almost translucent, and the husk of the once-vibrant city seemed little more than a mirage. The night was almost over. I hadn’t realized so much time had passed.
Curran crouched in the center of the roof, on top of some cardboard. He was still wearing the same gray T-shirt and jeans. In front of him a black metal contraption lay on its side. It resembled half of a barrel with long metal bits protruding to the side. The long bits were probably legs. The other half of the barrel waited upside-down to the left. An assortment of screws in small plastic bags lay scattered around, with an instruction manual nearby, its pages shifting in the breeze.
Curran looked at me. His eyes were the color of rain, solemn and grim. He looked like a man who was resigned to his fate but really didn’t like it. Whatever he was thinking, he wasn’t in a good place.
“Hey there, ass kicker.”
“That’s my line,” he said.
I made my voice sound casual. “What are you building?”
The fact that we already had a grill and a perfectly fine fire pit about ten feet behind him must’ve escaped his notice.
“Where did you get it?”
“Raphael’s reclamation crew pulled a bunch of these out of the rubble of an old home improvement store. He sent me one as a gift.”
Judging by the number of parts, this smoker was more complicated than a nuclear reactor. “Did you read the instructions?”
He shook his head.
“Why, were you afraid they’d take your man card away?”
“Are you going to help me or just make fun of me?”
“Can’t I do both?”
I found the instructions, flipped to the right page, and passed him the washers and nuts for his screws. He threaded them onto the bolts and tightened them with his fingers. The bolts groaned a bit. If I ever wanted to take this thing apart, I’d need a large wrench to do it. And possibly a hammer to hit the wrench when it wouldn’t move.
Curran lined up the hinges with the top of the smoker. They didn’t look right.
“I think these hinges are backward.”
He shook his head. “It will fit.”
He forced the bolts through the hinge holes, tightened the screws, and tried to attach the top to the bottom. I watched him turn it around about six times. He threaded the bolts in, attached them, and stared at the mutilated smoker. The lid was upside down and backward.
Curran glared at it in disgust. “To hell with it.”
“What’s bugging you?”
He leaned against the wall. “Did I ever tell you about the time I went to Europe?”
I came over to stand next to him.
“When I was twenty-two years old, Mike Wilson, the alpha of Ice Fury, came to me with an invitation to the Iberian Summit.”
Mike Wilson ran a pack in Alaska. It was the only pack in the United States that rivaled ours in size.
“Wilson’s wife was European, Belgian, I think, and they used to cross the Atlantic every couple of years to visit her family. She’s his ex-wife now. They had a falling out, so she took their daughter and went home to her parents.”
Considering that home was across the Atlantic Ocean, she must’ve really wanted away from Wilson. “Mike didn’t fight for his kid?”
“No. But ten years they were still together. They stopped in Atlanta on their way to the summit, and Wilson invited me to come with them to Spain. He made it sound like a deal for panacea was on the table, so I went.”
“How did it go?”
“I expected it to go badly. Turns out I was overly optimistic.” Curran crossed his arms on his chest, making his biceps bulge. “Things in Europe are different. The population density is higher, the magic traditions are wider spread, and many structures are old enough to stand through the magic waves. The shapeshifters are more numerous, and they started hammering out packs and claiming territory early on. There were nine different packs at the summit, nine sets of alphas, all of them strong, all of them ready to rip my throat out at any minute, and none of them honest. It was all big smiles to my face and claws at my back the moment I turned around.”
“Sounds fun. Did you kill anyone?”
“No. But I really wanted to. A werejackal from one of the packs approached me to make a deal to sell panacea, and the next day we found his corpse outside with a rock the size of a car tire where his head used to be.”
“Yeah. I brought ten people with me, some of the best fighters in the Pack. I thought all of them were solid and loyal. I went home with four. Two died in ‘unfortunate accidents,’ three were lured away by better money, and one got married. The Pack was still young. Losing every single one of them hurt, and there wasn’t anything I could’ve done about it. It took months for the power vacuum to sort itself out.”
Old frustration laced his voice. He must’ve spent weeks thinking it over, dissecting every moment looking for what he could’ve done differently. I wished I could reach through time and space and punch some people.
“We came in outnumbered and outgunned and went home empty-handed. I said never again.”
I waited. There had to be more.
“One of the alphas I met was Jarek Kral. Tough, vicious sonovabitch. He owns a chunk of the Eastern Carpathian Mountains and has been steadily expanding. The man is obsessed with his legacy. He thinks he’s some sort of a king. Most of his children died, either from going loup or from being his children. Only one daughter survived to adulthood, and he tried to give her to me.”
Curran faced me. “When I got back to our ship, there was a seventeen-year-old girl named Desandra waiting for me with a note. The plan was that I would marry her, and he’d pay me each year, as long as I agreed to send one of my sons his way. Jarek preferred two, as an insurance against one of them dying, but would settle for one.”
Charming. Fifteen minutes in a room with Curran would tell anyone with half a brain that he couldn’t be bought and he would never sell his children.
“You didn’t take him up on his generous offer, I take it?”
Curran shook his head. “I didn’t even talk to her. We sent her back where she came from. Jarek married her off to another pack, the Volkodavi from Ukraine.”
Wolf Killers, huh. Interesting name for a shapeshifter pack.
“Desandra lived with the Volkodavi for a few months, and then Jarek changed his mind, so she had to get a divorce. Later Jarek sold her off into another marriage, this time to a pack from Italy, Belve Ravennati.”
“He’s a kind and loving father.” I hopped on the parapet. I could write a book on bad fathers, but Desandra would probably give me a run for my money.
A corner of Curran’s mouth rose in contempt. “He isn’t her father. He’s her pimp. He got into some sort of dispute with the Belve Ravennati during the last Iberian Summit and they pissed him off, so he ordered Desandra to come back home again. Desandra had a fit. Her current husband and her ex-husband were both at the summit, so she slept with both of them. Now she’s carrying twins, and the amniotic tests are showing DNA from both men.”
“How does that work, exactly?”
“That’s what I said.” He grimaced. “I had to ask Doolittle. There is a term for it, hang on . . .” He pulled a piece of paper out of the pocket of his jeans and read it. “Heteropaternal superfecundation. Apparently, it means twins from different fathers. I’ve never heard of it, but Doolittle says it’s a real thing and it happens with shapeshifters more often than with normal humans. From what he says, there are identical twins and then there are fraternal twins. Fraternal twins occur when two eggs inside a mother are fertilized at once. The super-whatever happens when they are fertilized by different fathers.”
“I still fail to see how any of this epic mess is our problem.”
Curran grimaced. “Jarek controls a large chunk of the Carpathians. He was trying to make marrying Desandra more attractive, so he set up Desandra’s firstborn to inherit a profitable mountain pass. Apparently during the fight at the summit, Jarek told Desandra’s current husband that if she got pregnant, he would rather kill her and not have any grandchildren before he would let Belve Ravennati get their hands on the pass.”
Killing a woman to murder the child in her womb. Now that sounded eerily familiar. “Would he?”
Curran growled under his breath. “It’s complicated. Jarek always had a big mouth, and he did kill one of his sons during a challenge. But the Jarek I remember was also hell-bent on making himself a dynasty. Now he’s supposedly making public threats and considering killing his daughter, who is his only chance at getting that dynasty going. He’s got no kids left—Desandra is it. Something else must be going on. But anyway, Desandra must’ve believed it, because when she realized she was pregnant, she freaked the hell out. She hid her pregnancy until the three packs were together again and then sprang it on them in public. Jarek tried to attack her right there and almost started a war, because the other two packs piled in to stop him.”
“Sure. They want the pass.” A dead Desandra couldn’t give birth.
“Exactly. In the end, they found some sort of neutral guy who invited Desandra to his place away from everybody. She stayed there for most of her pregnancy, but she’s due in two months and the three packs are coming there to witness the birth. Depending on which child is born first, either pack could claim the inheritance. The Carpathian Mountains are right between the Volkodavi and Belve Ravennati territories, so they both desperately want it. Neither of the two fathers trusts the other, and they trust Jarek even less. They want someone strong to guard her and her children and serve as an impartial witness to the birth until the inheritance is settled. The packs invited me to be that somebody.”
The pieces clicked in my head. “They’re paying you with the panacea.” That was where he got it.
Curran nodded. “Ten drums. It would last us for ten months to a year.”
We could save Maddie. We could save Jennifer’s unborn baby. If I got pregnant with Curran’s child . . . I pushed that thought firmly out of my mind. I couldn’t bring any babies into this world. Not while my father was still in it. But if I did . . . “We have to go.”
Curran looked like he bit into a rotten apple. “Yes, we do.”
A year of no children going loup. Maddie’s horrible half-animal face flashed before me. The way Meredith had looked at her, her eyes haunted, her face withdrawn with pain, gave me all of the motivation I needed. A few short months ago I had been in the exact same place as she was, locked in the terrified haze where all you want to do is wake up and see your kid be okay. You want it so much, so desperately that you will do anything, anything at all for some magic cure, for a smallest chance. You want the nightmare to end, but it never does. How do you put a price on avoiding that?
Curran studied the pieces of the smoker. “The spiel is that since I’m far away, I’ll be fair and neutral. None of their neighbors have volunteered for the job.”
“They already have her in a neutral location,” I thought out loud. “It doesn’t make sense that they couldn’t find someone strong enough close by to keep the three packs in line. This is like going to L.A. to hire a bodyguard for a job in Atlanta.”
“Mm-hm. Their story doesn’t quite add up. Desandra is still alive, which means one of two things: Jarek doesn’t really want to kill her, which means they don’t need me, or they’ve got her in a fortress where she is completely secure and he can’t get to her, in which case, again, they don’t need me.”
“Did you ask them about it?”
“They’re claiming that since all three packs will be in the place at the same time, only I am strong enough to keep them from turning the place into a slaughterhouse.”
I liked this less and less. They could only give us a flimsy reason, but they wanted Curran specifically and dangled panacea in front of our noses. They knew he wouldn’t turn it down. “It’s a trap.”
“Oh, I know it’s a trap.” Curran bared his teeth. “They’ve baited it with something they know I can’t refuse and let the Pack know about it. I met the envoys yesterday, just me and Jim alone. When I came back from the meeting, the rats and the jackals had already left messages asking if they could assist me in any way.”
“Clever.” The shapeshifters gossiped worse than old ladies at a church picnic. Right now rumors about the ten drums of the panacea were spreading through the Pack like wildfire. If Curran balked at going, every parent with a child under twenty would storm the Keep and riot.
The Pack had very little contact with European shapeshifters. There were some tentative trade agreements, but the only thing Curran was really interested in was the panacea, and the European packs weren’t willing to sell or share.
We looked at each other.
“Have you done something to attract their attention?” I asked. “Why us? Why now?”
He shook his head, his voice tinted with a growl. “I’ve done nothing and I don’t know.”
“What could they possibly want from us?”
“I don’t know. I’ll find out one way or another.”
“What did Jim say?”
“He doesn’t know either. He’s looking into it.”
Jim Shrapshire was as devious as you could get. As the Pack’s chief of security, he hoarded information like gold. If he didn’t know what was going on, either it didn’t matter or it was really bad. My money was on really bad.
“When do we need to be there?”
“As soon as we can. She’s staying in a small town on the coast of the Black Sea. If we take a ship from Savannah across the Atlantic, we’re looking at about three weeks or more of travel, provided nothing happens.”
We’d need to leave fast. The biggest hurdle would be finding a ship. Passages across the Atlantic didn’t always work out. The Black Sea wasn’t easy to cross either. The ancient Greeks called it Pontos Axenos, the Hostile Sea. In our day and age, Greek myths were lifesaving required reading, and I’d read enough of them to know that the Black Sea wasn’t a fun place.
“Where on the Black Sea?”
Colchis. Bodyguard detail in the land of the Golden Fleece, dragons, and witches, where the Argonauts had sailed and nearly died. “We should get the terms in writing.”
“Kate, do you think I’d walk out of that meeting without a contract?” He picked up a stack of papers pinned to the roof by the box and passed it to me. I scanned it. The three clans collectively hired us to protect Desandra from all threats and act in her best interests until the birth of her children and for three days after.
“That ‘acting in her best interest’ is a really broad clause,” I thought out loud.
“Mm-hm. I’ve wondered about that. Somebody must’ve insisted on putting that in.”
“It almost sounds like she isn’t in her right mind and they’re worried she’ll harm herself.” I realized Curran was looking at me. “Yes?”
“The invitation is for the Beast Lord and the Consort. I understand if you choose not to go.”
I just looked at him. Really? He meant everything to me. If I had to die so he could live, I would put my life on the line in an instant, and he would do the same for me. “I’m sorry, run that by me again?”
“We’ll have to cross the ocean in the middle of a hurricane season, go to a foreign country filled with hostile shapeshifters, and babysit a pregnant woman, while everyone plots and waits for an opportunity to stab us in the back.”
I shrugged. “Well, it sounds bad if you put it that way . . .”
“Kate,” he growled.
“I’m trying to tell you that you don’t have to go. I have to, but you can stay if you want.”
Ha-ha. “I thought we were a team.”
“You’re sending some confusing signals.”
Curran growled deep in his throat.
“That’s impressive but not really informative, Your Furriness.”
“This is going to suck,” Curran said. “It will suck much less if you come with me. You want me to level, here it is: I need you. I need you because I love you. Three months without you will be hell. But even if we weren’t together, I would still need you. You’re a good fighter, you’ve worked as a bodyguard, and you know magic. We may not have many magic users, but we don’t know if those packs do, and if they hit us with magic, we have no way to counter.” He spread his arms. “But I love you and I don’t want you to be hurt. I’m not going to ask you to come with me. That would be like stepping in front of a moving train and saying ‘Hey, honey, come stand next to me.’“
I hopped off the wall and stood next to him. “Any time.”
He just looked at me.
“I’ve never killed a train before. It might be fun to try.”
“Are you sure?”
“One time I was dying in a cage inside a palace that was flying over a magic jungle. And some idiot went in there, chased the palace down, fought his way through hundreds of rakshasas, and rescued me.”
“I remember,” he said.
“That’s when I realized you loved me,” I said. “I was in the cage and I heard you roar.”
He chuckled. The tension in his shoulders eased. He hugged me and I kissed him. He tasted like Curran—male, healthy, and mine—and I would know that taste anywhere.
“I’m coming with you, Your Foolishness. You can’t get rid of me.”
Besides, it would be good to get out of Atlanta. And away from Hugh d’Ambray—my father’s warlord.
My family background is complicated. If my real father discovered I was still breathing, he would move heaven and earth to choke the life out of my body. For twenty-six years I had managed to hide in plain sight. But then my path had crossed with Hugh d’Ambray’s, and a couple of months ago he figured out who I probably was. I didn’t think he was one hundred percent sure, but he had to have strong suspicions. Sooner or later, Hugh d’Ambray would come knocking at my door, and I wasn’t ready. My body had healed and I was learning how to mold my blood into weapons and armor, which was one of my father’s greatest powers, but I needed more practice.
The trip would buy me some time, and every day I’d grow stronger. Good luck looking for me across the ocean, Hugh.
Curran stepped closer. I leaned against him. Below us the forest stretched into the distance, and beyond it to the right, the twisted ruins of Atlanta darkened the horizon.
The anxiety swelled in me and crested. The words came out on their own. “If we have children, how likely are they to go loup?”
“Less likely than most,” Curran said. “I’m a First, and we don’t go crazy as often.”
Firsts were a different breed from other shapeshifters. They were stronger and faster and had greater control of changing shape. But they were still subject to Lyc-V and the horror of loupism. “Is it possible?”
I could feel the anxiety starting up inside me, like a windup toy that had just been let go. “What are the chances?”
He sighed. “I don’t know, Kate. Nobody in my family went loup as far as I know, but I was too young to ask about things like this. I just know it’s less likely. We’ll get the panacea, baby. I promise you that we will get it.”
“Do you want to have children?”
I tried to wrap my mind around the idea of having Curran’s children. It wasn’t even a thought; it was a distant hazy idea, and looking at it too closely seemed too complicated right now. I tried to imagine myself pregnant and couldn’t. What if my father found me and killed my kids? What if they went loup?
Curran had the strangest look on his face. I realized I was hugging myself.
Hey, baby, do you want to have my children? Here, let me curl into a fetal ball in response. Ugh. I was a moron.
“Maybe. Eventually. When things settle down. Do you want to have children?”
He put his arm around me. “Sure. Later on. I’m in no rush.”
Wind bathed us, fresh and carrying a promise of a new day. As we stood together, the sun crested the forest, a narrow golden sliver so bright, it was painful to see.
We would be together and we would get panacea for Maddie. That was all that mattered for now.
Hope you enjoyed the excerpt. We can’t wait for the full story. Join us next Friday the 26th for our discussion of Gunmetal Magic starring Andrea.