Magic Shifts(Kate Daniels,book 8)(4) by Ilona Andrews
I carved the third ghoul into two separate pieces and sliced the fourth one’s throat.
The ghouls woke up. They swarmed us. The leonine beast swung his claws and disemboweled a ghoul with a precise swipe. Intestines rained onto the road. The bitter stench of ghoul blood mixed with the unmistakable sour reek of a gut wound singed my nostrils.
Claws ripped through my clothes, drawing agonizing scalding-hot lines across my back. You want to play? Fine. I needed a workout anyway.
My saber became a razor-sharp wall. It cut, sliced, and pierced, ripping flesh and hissing as the ghoul blood that bathed it boiled from its magic. I moved fast, sidestepping claws and blocking teeth. Another fiery gash stung my back. A ghoul clamped onto my boot and I ripped my leg free and stomped his skull into the pavement. A welcome heat spread through me, turning my muscles flexible and pliant. The world turned crystal clear. Time stretched, helping me. The ghouls lunged, but I was faster. They raked at me with their claws, but my blade found them first. I savored it all, every second of the fight, every drop of blood flying past me, every moment of resistance when Sarrat caught my target on its edge.
This was what I was raised and trained for. For better or worse, I was a killer. This was my calling, and I made no excuses for it.
A ghoul loomed before me. I sliced it down in a classic overhand stroke. It fell. Nobody took its place. I pivoted on my toes, looking for a fight. To the left the werelion tossed a broken body to the ground and turned to me. A single ghoul hugged the ground, caught between us.
“Alive,” the werelion snarled.
Way ahead of you. Let’s find out who the mysterious “he” is. I started toward the ghoul, sword in hand.
It shivered, looked right, then left, looked at the werelion, then at me. That’s right. You’re trapped and not going anywhere. If it ran, we would chase it down.
The ghoul reared, jerked its clawed hands to its throat, and sliced it open. Blood gushed. The ghoul gurgled and collapsed on the ground. The light went out of its eyes.
Well, that was a hell of a thing.
The lion monster opened his mouth and a human voice came out, his diction perfect. “Hey, baby.”
“Hey, honey.” I pulled a piece of cloth out of my pocket and carefully wiped down Sarrat’s blade.
Curran stepped over to me and put his arm around my shoulders, pulling me close. I leaned against him, feeling the hard muscle of his torso against my side. We surveyed the road strewn with broken bodies.
The adrenaline faded slowly. The colors turned less vivid. One by one the cuts and gashes made themselves known: my back burned, my left hip hurt too, and my left shoulder ached. I’d probably wake up with a spectacular bruise tomorrow.
We’d survived another one. We’d get to go home and keep on living.
“What the hell was all this about?” Curran asked me.
“I have no idea. They don’t typically gather into large packs. The biggest marauder pack ever sighted had seven ghouls, and that was considered a fluke. They are solitary and territorial. They only band together for protection, but clearly someone was waiting for them. Do you think Ghastek is connected to this?”
Curran grimaced. “It’s not like him. Ghastek only moves when he has something to gain. Having us kill ghouls doesn’t help him in any way. He knows what we can do. He had to realize we’d go through them.”
Curran was right. Ghastek had to know we’d dispatch the ghouls. He wouldn’t have used us to do his dirty work either. For all of his faults, Ghastek was a premier navigator, a Master of the Dead, and he loved his job. If he wanted the ghouls dead, he would’ve sliced this group to pieces with a couple of vampires, or he would’ve used this opportunity as a training exercise for his journeymen.
“This isn’t making any sense to me,” I said, pulling traces of my blood toward me. It slid and rolled in tiny drops, forming a small puddle on the pavement. I pushed it to the side, solidified it, and stomped on it. It shattered under my foot into inert powder. Blood retained its magic even when separated from the body. For as long as I could remember, I had to guard my blood because if it were examined, it would point to my father like an arrow. There was a time where I had to set any trace of my blood on fire, but now it obeyed me. I couldn’t decide if it made me a better fighter or just a worse abomination. “They seemed desperate. Driven, almost, as if they had some sort of goal to get to.”
“We’ll figure it out,” Curran told me. “It’s almost midnight. I say we go home, get cleaned up, and climb into bed.”
“Sounds like a plan.”
“Hey, is there any of that apple pie left?” Curran asked.
“I think so.”
“Oh good. Let’s go home, baby.”
Our home. It still hit me like a punch, even after months of us being together—he was right there, waiting for me. If something attacked me, he’d kill it. If I needed help, he would help me. He loved me and I loved him back. I was no longer alone.
We were walking to my donkey when he said, “Sweet cheeks?”
“I couldn’t help it. Ghastek’s got a stick up his ass the size of a railroad tie. Did you see the look on the vampire’s face? He looked constipated.”
Curran laughed. We found Cuddles and went home.
OUR HOUSE SAT on a short street in one of the newer subdivisions. In a previous life, the subdivision was part of Victoria Estates, an upper-middle-class neighborhood, a quiet place with narrow streets and old towering trees. It was as close to living in the forest as one could get and still stay in the suburbs. Then the magic came, and the trees of Hahn Forest to the south and W. D. Thomson Park revolted. The same strange power of magic that gnawed skyscrapers to mere nubs nourished the trees, and they grew at unnatural speed, invading neighborhoods and swallowing them whole. Victoria Estates fell prey to the encroaching woods without a whimper of resistance. Most people moved.
About four years ago an enterprising developer decided to reclaim the space and cut a new kidney-bean shape out of the forest, building post-Shift houses with thick walls, barred windows, sturdy doors, and generous yards. Our street lay on the inside of the bean, closest to the woods, while two other roads spun out of it to the north and west in widening arches. Ours was a short street, only seven houses on the other side and five on ours, with our home in the middle.
As we turned onto our road, I stretched my neck to see the house. It was a big three-story beast, sitting on roughly five acres, all fenced in, with a stable and a pasture in the back. I loved every brick and board of that house. It belonged to me and Curran. It was our family home. I’d lived in an apartment before. I’d lived in some hellholes. I’d even lived in a fortress, but this was the first house in a long time where I felt completely at home. Every time I left it, I had a terrible suspicion that when I came back, it would disappear, collapse, or be burned to the ground. When I somehow managed to obtain something nice, the Universe usually taunted me with it just long enough for me to care and then smashed it to pieces.
I couldn’t see our home yet—the bend of the street was in the way. I resisted making Cuddles clop faster. She had had a tiring night.
Curran reached over and covered my hand with his clawed furry one. “One month left.”
Two months ago, on January 1, Curran and I officially stepped down as the Beast Lord and Consort of the Pack. One day we were in charge of a thousand and a half shapeshifters and the next we weren’t. Technically we had stepped down a few days prior, but the official date was January 1, for convenience’ sake. We had ninety days to formally separate our finances and business interests from the Pack. If anyone decided they wanted to leave the Pack as part of our staff, they had to do it before that time ran out.
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