Magic Gifts Page 2

Curran glared at the undead through the windshield. Ninety percent of the vampires belonged to the People, a weird hybrid of a corporation and a research institute. We both despised the People and everything they stood for.

I couldn't resist. "I thought you said this was a nice place."

He leaned back, gripped the steering wheel and let out a long growling, "Argh."

I chuckled.

"Who the hell stops at a restaurant while navigating?" Curran squeezed the wheel a little. It made a groaning noise.

I shrugged. "Maybe the navigators were hungry."

He gave me an odd look. "This far away from the Casino means they're out on patrol. What, did they suddenly get the munchies?"

"Curran, ignore the damn bloodsuckers. Let's go and have a date anyway."

He looked like he wanted to kill somebody.

The world blinked. Magic flooded us like an invisible tsunami. The neon sign above the restaurant withered and a larger brilliant blue sign ignited above it, made from hand-blown glass and filled with charged air.

I reached over and squeezed Curran's hand. "Come on, you, me, a platter of barely seared meat, it will be great. If we see the navigators, we can make fun of the way they hold their forks."

We got out of the car and headed inside. The bloodsuckers glanced at us in unison, their eyes like two smoldering coals buried beneath the ash of a dying fire. I felt their minds, twin hot pinpoints of pain, restrained securely by the navigators' wills. One slip up and those coals would ignite into an all consuming flame. Vampires never knew satiation. They never got full, they never stopped killing, and if let loose, they would drown the world in blood and die of starvation when there was nothing left to kill.

The chains wouldn't hold them - the links were an eighth of an inch thick at best. A chain like that would restrain a large dog. A vamp would snap it and not even notice, but general public felt better if the bloodsuckers were chained, and so the navigators obliged.

We passed the vampires and entered the restaurant.

The inside of Arirang was dim. Feylanterns glowed with soft light on the walls, as the charged air inside their colored glass tubes reacted with magic. Each feylantern had been hand-blown into a beautiful shape: a bright blue dragon, an emerald tortoise, a purple fish, a turquoise stocky dog with a unicorn horn... Booths lined the walls, their tables plain rectangles of wood. In the center of the floor four larger round tables sported built-in charcoal grills under metal hoods.

The restaurant was about half full. The two booths to our right were occupied, the first by a young couple, a dark-haired man and a blond woman in their twenties, and the second by two middle-aged men. The younger couple chatted quietly. Good clothes, relaxed, casual, well groomed. Ten to one these were the navigators who had parked the bloodsuckers out front. The Casino had seven Masters of the Dead and I knew them by sight. I didn't recognize either the man or the woman. Either these two were visiting from out of town or they were upper level journeymen.

Both of the older guys in the next booth were armed. The closer one carried a short sword, which he put on the seat next to him. As his friend reached for the salt shaker, his sweatshirt hugged the gun in his side holster.

Past the men in the far right corner, four women in their thirties laughed too loud - probably tipsy. On the other side a family with two teenage daughters cooked their food on the grill. The older girl looked a bit like Julie, my ward. Two business women, another family with a toddler, and an older couple rounded off the patrons. No threats.

The air swirled with delicious aroma of meat seared over open fire, cooked garlic, and sweet spice. My mouth watered. I hadn't eaten since grabbing some bread this morning from a street vendor. My stomach actually hurt.

A waiter in a plain black pants and a black T-shirt led us to a table in the middle of the floor. Curran and I took chairs opposite one another - I could see the back door and he had a nice view of the front entrance. We ordered hot tea. Thirty seconds later it arrived with a plate of pot stickers.

"Hungry?" Curran asked.


"Combination platter for four," Curran ordered.

His hungry and my hungry were two different things.

The waiter departed.

Curran smiled. It was a happy genuine smile and it catapulted him from attractive into irresistible territory. He didn't smile very often in public. That intimate smile was usually reserved for private moments when we were alone.

I reached over, pulled the band off my still damp braid, and slid my fingers through it, unraveling the hair. Curran's gaze snagged on my hands. He focused on my fingers like a cat on a piece of foil pulled by a string. I shook my head and my hair fell over my shoulders in a long dark wave. There we go. Now we were both private in public.

Tiny gold sparks danced in Curran's grey irises. He was thinking dirty thoughts and the wicked edge in his smile made me want to slide next to him and touch him.

We had to wait. I was pretty sure that having hot sex on the floor of Arirang would get us banned for life. Then again, it might be worth it.

I raised my tea in a salute. "To our date."

He raised his cup and we clinked them gently against each other.

"So how was your day?" he asked.

"First, I chased a giant jellyfish around through some suburbs. Then I argued with Biohazard about coming and picking it up, because they claimed it was a Fish and Game issue. Then I called Fish and Game and conferenced them in on the Biohazard call, and then I got to listen to the two of them argue and call each other names. They got really creative."

"Then Jim called," Curran said.

I grimaced. "Yes. That too."

"Is there a particular reason you're avoiding our chief of security?" Curran asked.

"Do you remember how my aunt killed the head of the Mercenary Guild?"

"Not something one forgets," he said.

"They're still squabbling over who will be in charge."

Curran glanced at me. "That was what, five months ago?"

"My point exactly. On one side there are the older mercs, who have experience. On the other side there is the support staff. Both groups have roughly an equal share of the Guild as a result of Solomon's will and they hate each other. It's getting into death threat territory, so they're having some sort of final arbitration to decide who's in charge."

"Except they are deadlocked," Curran guessed.

"Yes, they are. Apparently Jim thinks that I'm supposed to break that tie."

The Guild's now dead founder was a closet shapeshifter. He left twenty percent of the Guild to the Pack. As long as the Mercenary Guild remained deadlocked, nobody was getting paid and the Pack alphas wanted that income stream to start flowing again. They put pressure on Jim, and Jim put pressure on me.

I did enough years in the Guild to be viewed as a veteran. Jim did enough years just as well, but unlike me, he had the luxury of keeping his identity semi-private. Most mercs didn't know he was high up in the Pack.

I had no privacy. I was the Pack Consort. It was the price I paid for being with Curran, but I didn't have to like it.

His Majesty drank his tea. "Not looking forward to settling the dispute?"

"I'd rather eat dirt. It's between Mark and the veterans led by the Four Horsemen, and they despise each other. They aren't interested in reaching a consensus. They just want to throw mud at each other over a conference table."

An evil light sparked in his eyes. "You could always go for Plan B."

"Pound everyone to a bloody pulp until they shut up and cooperate?"


It would make me feel better. "I could always do it your way instead."

Curran raised his blond eyebrows.

"Roar until everyone pees themselves."

A shadow of self-satisfaction flickered on his face and vanished, replaced by innocence. "That's bullshit. I'm perfectly reasonable and I almost never roar. I don't even remember what it feels like to knock some heads together."

The Beast Lord of Atlanta, a gentle and enlightened monarch. "How progressive of you, Your Majesty."

He cracked another grin.

The male necromancer in the booth next to us reached under the table and produced a rectangular rosewood box. Ten to one, there was some sort of jewelry inside.

I nodded at Curran. "Your turn. How did your day go?"

"It was busy and full of stupid shit I didn't want to deal with."

The blond woman opened the box. Her eyes lit up.

"The rats are having some sort of internal dispute over some apartments they bought. Took all day to untangle it." Curran shrugged.

The woman plucked a golden necklace from the box. Shaped like an inch and a half wide segmented collar of pale gold, it gleamed in the feylanthern light.

I poured us more tea. "But you prevailed."

"Of course." Curran drank from his cup. "You know, we could stay over in the city tonight."


"Because that way we wouldn't have to drive for an hour back to the Keep before we could fool around."


A scream jerked me to my feet. In the booth, the blond necromancer clawed at the necklace, gasping for breath. The man stared at her, his face a terrified mask. The woman raked her throat, gouging flesh. With a dried pop, her neck snapped, and she crashed to the floor. The man dove down, pulling at the necklace. "Amanda! Oh my god!"

Past him two pairs of red vampire eyes stared at us through the window.

Oh crap. I pulled Slayer from the sheath on my back. Sensing the undead, the pale blade of the enchanted saber perspired, sending wisps of white vapor into the air.

The dull carmine glow of vampire irises flared into vivid scarlet. Shit. The restaurant just updated its menu with fresh human.

Flesh boiled on Curran's arms. Bone grew, muscle twisted like slick ropes, skin sheathed his new body and sprouted fur. Enormous claws slid from Curran's new fingers.

The vampires rose off their haunches.

Curran stood up next to me, nearly eight feet of steel-hard muscle.

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