Magic Strikes Chapter 2

I MADE IT BY 3:00 A.M.

Saiman occupied a suite on the fifteenth floor of the only high-rise still standing in Buckhead.

Magic hated tall buildings - magic hated anything large and technologically complex, period

- and gnawed them down to nubs of concrete and steelwork only four to five stories high.

They jutted sadly here and there along Midtown, like decrepit obelisks of some long-forgotten civilization.

Formerly Lenox Pointe and now Champion Heights, Saiman's building, which had been remodeled more times than I could count, was shielded by a complex spell, which tricked the magic into thinking the high-rise was a giant rock. During the magic waves, parts of the high-rise looked like a granite crag. During the flare, parts of it were a granite crag. But today, with the magic down, it looked like a high-rise.

I had taken Betsi, my gasoline-guzzling Subaru, to save time. The magic had just fallen, and considering how weak this wave had been, the tech would likely stay on top for at least a few more hours. I parked Betsi's battered, dented carcass next to slick vehicles that cost twice my year's salary and then some, and headed up the concrete steps to the lobby armored in steel plates and bulletproof glass.

My foot caught on the edge of a step and I nearly took a dive. Great. Saiman was frighteningly intelligent and observant, always a bad combo for an adversary. I needed to be sharp. Instead I was so tired, my eyes required match-sticks to stay open. If I didn't wake up fast, Derek could end the night wading through a sea of hurt.

When a shapeshifter hit puberty, he could go loup or go Code. Going loup meant surrendering yourself to the beast and rolling down the bumpy hill of homicide, cannibalism, and insanity, until you ran into teeth, blades, or a lot of silver bullets at the bottom. Going Code meant discipline, strict conditioning, and an iron will, and subjecting oneself to this lifestyle was the only way a shapeshifter could function in a human society. Going Code also meant joining a pack, where the hierarchy was absolute, with alphas burdened with vast power and heavy responsibility.

Atlanta's Pack was arguably the biggest in the country. Only Alaska's Ice Fury rivaled it for sheer numbers. Atlanta shapeshifters drew a lot of attention. The Pack was big on loyalty, accountability, chain of command, and honor. The Pack members never forgot that society at large perceived them as beasts, and they did everything in their power to project a low-key, law-abiding image. Punishment for unsanctioned criminal activity was immediate and brutal.

Getting caught breaking and entering into Saiman's apartment would land Derek into scalding-hot water. Saiman had connections, and if he chose, he could create a lot of noise.

The potential for the Pack to get a huge and very public black eye was significant. The Pack's alphas, collectively known as the Pack Council, would be champing at the bit once they found out about the murder. Right now wasn't a good time to piss them off any further. I needed to get Derek out of that apartment, fast, quiet, and with a minimum of fuss.

I made it to the lobby and knocked on the metal grate. Inside a guard leveled an AK-47 at me from behind his reinforced station in the center of the marble floor. I gave him my name and he buzzed me in - I was expected. How nice of Saiman.

The elevator brought me to the fifteenth floor and spat me out into a luxurious hallway lined with carpet that might have been thicker than my mattress. I crossed it to Saiman's apartment, and the lock clicked open just as I reached out to ring the bell.

The door opened, revealing Saiman. He wore his neutral form, the one he usually put on for my benefit: a bald man of average height and slight build, wearing white sweats. His lightly tanned face was symmetrical, handsome even, strictly speaking, but devoid of any attitude.

Being face-to-face with him was similar to looking into an opaque, slightly reflective surface: he enjoyed mimicking the mannerisms of his conversation partners, knowing it unnerved them.

His eyes, on the other hand, were as remarkable as his expression was bland: dark and backlit with an agile intellect. Right now the eyes sparkled with amusement. Enjoy it while it lasts, Saiman. I brought my sword.

"Kate, what a pleasure to see you."

Can't say likewise. "Derek?"

"Please, come in."

I entered the apartment, a carefully designed, monochromatic environment of ultramodern lines, curves, and plush white cushions. Even the loup cage, which contained Derek at the far wall, matched the gleaming steel and glass of the coffee table and lamp fixtures.

Derek saw me. He didn't stir, didn't say anything, but his gaze fastened on to me and wouldn't let go.

I walked over to the cage and looked at him. In one piece. "Are you hurt?"

"No. You shouldn't have come. I can handle this."

Obviously I was missing the whole picture. Any minute now he would leap up, wrench the two-inch silver alloy bars apart despite the fact that silver was toxic to shapeshifters, and heroically kick Saiman's ass. Any minute now. Any minute.

I sighed. Fate, deliver me from the bravery of adolescent idiots.

"Kate, please sit. Would you like something to drink?" Saiman migrated to the bar.

"Water, please."

I slid Slayer out of its sheath on my back. The saber caught the light of the electric lamps, its pale opaque blade long and slender. Saiman glanced at me from the bar. Have you met my sword, Saiman? It's to die for.

I laid Slayer on the coffee table, took a spot on the couch, and studied Derek. At nineteen, the boy wonder was still slightly awkward, with long legs and a lean body that promised to fill out in a few years. His brown hair grew dark, with a rich touch of chrome, and he kept it very short. His face, grim at the moment, possessed the type of fresh, dreamy beauty that made adolescent girls - and probably some moms - melt in his presence. When we first met, he had been pretty. Now he was slowly edging on handsome and promising to develop into a champion heartbreaker. His eyes especially posed danger to anything female: huge, dark, and defined by eyelashes so long they cast shadows onto his cheeks.

It was a wonder he could go out into the daylight at all. I could never understand why the cops didn't arrest him for causing an epidemic of swooning among females eighteen and under.

Saiman would screw anything that moved. With Derek's looks, I'd been afraid I'd find him chained to a bed or worse.

"After our conversation, I recalled where I had seen our young friend." Saiman brought over two crystal glasses, a pale gold wine for himself and water with ice for me. I checked the water. No white powder, no fizzing pill, no other blatantly obvious signs of being spiked. To drink or not to drink? That was the question.

I sipped it. If he'd spiked it, I could still kill him before I passed out.

Saiman sampled his wine and handed a folded newspaper to me. The newspapers had been a dying breed before the Shift, but the magic waves played havoc with the Internet, and the news sheets had returned in all their former glory. This one showed a photograph of a foreboding redbrick building behind a ruined wall. A dragon corpse, little more than a skeleton with shreds of rotting meat clinging to its bones, decomposed in the background among bodies of dead women. The headline proclaimed RED STALKER KILLER

DISPATCHED BY BEAST LORD. No mention of me. Just the way I liked it.

A second picture punctuated the article below the first: Derek, carried off by Doolittle, the Pack's physician. The Stalker had broken Derek's legs and kept him chained to prevent the bones from healing.

"He was the boy targeted by the Stalker because of his association with you," Saiman said. "I believe he was blood sworn to protect you."

Saiman had excellent sources and paid well for the information, but Pack members didn't talk to outsiders, period. How the hell did he get hold of that juicy tidbit?

"The oath is no longer in effect." Curran, the Beast Lord of Atlanta, the Leader of the Pack, and Asshole Supreme, who quite literally held Derek's life in his claws, had released Derek from his blood pledge once the Stalker affair was over.

"Magic has an interesting quality, Kate. Once a bond is formed, it affects both people."

I knew Newman's theory of reciprocal magic as well as anyone. Saiman was fishing for information. I was happy to disappoint him. "If you think that I came here out of some residual magical compulsion generated by an old blood oath, you're wrong. He isn't my lover, my secret relative, or a shapeshifter of great importance to the Pack. I'm here because he's a friend. If our roles were reversed, you would be dead by now and he would be using your coffee table as a pry bar to wrench me out of that cage."

I fixed Saiman with my best version of a hard stare. "I don't have many friends, Saiman. If any harm befalls him, I'll take it very personally."

"Are you threatening me?" Saiman's voice held only a mild curiosity.

"I'm simply defining the playing field. If you hurt him, I'll hurt you back, and I won't give a second thought to the consequences."

Saiman nodded gravely. "Please be assured, I'll take your emotional attachment under consideration."

I had no doubt he would. Saiman took everything under consideration. He dealt in information, selling it to the highest bidder. He gathered his commodity bit by bit, piecing together a larger picture from fractured mosaics of individual conversations, and he forgot nothing.

Saiman set his wine down and braided the long fingers of his hands into a single fist.

"However, your friend broke into my apartment and attempted to steal my property. I do feel compelled to point out that while I respect your capacity for violence, I'm confident you won't kill me without a reason. I don't intend to give you one, and therefore, I hold the upper hand in our negotiations."

That was true. If this mess got out, Derek would have to deal with Curran. The Beast Lord was an arrogant, powerful sonovabitch who ruled the Pack with a steel hand and three-inch claws. Curran and I mixed about as well as glycerin and nitric acid: put us together, shake a bit, and hit the deck as we exploded. However, despite his many faults, and I would have to borrow Saiman's fingers and toes in addition to my own to count them all, Curran didn't play favorites . Derek would be punished, and his punishment would be severe.

I sipped my water. "Noted. Out of curiosity, what did he try to steal?"

Saiman produced two small rectangles of paper out of thin air with the buttery grace of a skilled magician. The magic was down, so it had to be sleight of hand. I filed that fact away for future reference: never play cards with Saiman.

"He wanted these." Saiman offered me the papers. I looked at them without touching. They were blood-red.

Heavy gold lettering spelled out MIDNIGHT GAMES across the parchment surface.

"What are the Midnight Games?"

"An invitation-only preternatural tournament."

Oh boy. "I take it the tournament is illegal."

"Extremely. In addition, I believe the Beast Lord expressly forbade attendance and participation in the tournament to Pack members."

First, Derek broke into Saiman's apartment. Second, he did it with the intent to steal. Third, he tried to steal tickets to an illegal gladiatorial tournament in direct violation of Pack Law.

Curran would skin Derek alive and that might not be just a figure of speech. Was there any possible way this mess could get worse?

"Okay. How can we fix this?"

"I'm prepared to let him go and forget he was ever here," Saiman said. "Provided you accompany me to the Games tomorrow night."

Never ask that question.

"No," Derek said.

I studied the glittering crystal glass in my hand, playing for time. A large crest had been painstakingly cut into the glass, a flame encircled by a serpent. The light of the electric lamp set the cut design aglow, and the crystal scales of the serpent sparkled with fiery colors.

"Lovely, isn't?"

"It is."

"Riedel. Hand-cut. A very limited series, only two made."

"Why do you want my company?"

"My reasons are twofold: first, I require your professional opinion. I find myself in need of a fighter expert."

I arched my eyebrows.

"I would like you to evaluate one of the teams at the Games." Saiman permitted himself a small smile.

Okay. I could do that. "And second?"

Saiman studied the glass in his hand for a long moment and smashed it against the table. It shattered with a pure chime, showering the carpet with a spray of glittering crystal shards. In the cage Derek snarled.

I killed the desire to roll my eyes at all the drama and nodded at the stub of crystal. "If you're planning to cut me with that, you're out of luck. A bottle works much better for this kind of thing."

Delight sparkled in Saiman's eyes. "No, actually, I was planning on making a philosophical point. The glass you now hold in your fingers is the only glass of its kind in existence. It's the ultimate luxury - there is nothing else like it."

The flesh around his wrist swelled, flowing like molten wax. My stomach lurched and tried to crawl sideways. Here we go again. He stored magic like a battery, but I really thought with the technology as strong as it was right now, he wouldn't be able to metamorphose. Live and learn.

Saiman's shoulders widened. His neck, chest, and thighs thickened, straining his sweatshirt.

Crisp muscle showed on his forearms. The bones under the skin of his face shivered and I nearly vomited my water.

A new face looked at me: handsome, strong, sensuous, with a square jaw, defined cheekbones, and hooded green eyes under reddish eyebrows. Thick blond hair spilled from his head to fall in a glossy wave onto his newly massive shoulders.

"For most people, I'm the ultimate luxury," he said.

The man collapsed, thinning, flowing, twisting, but the eyes never changed. I stared into those eyes, using them as an anchor. Even when their corners sank, their irises darkened, and a velvet fringe of dark eyelashes sheathed them, I could still tell it was Saiman.

"What I offer is much greater than sex," a Hispanic woman of startling beauty said. "I offer wish fulfillment. Anything you want. Anyone you want. I can give you your fantasy. And more, I can give you the forbidden."

His face shifted again. Derek. A very reasonable facsimile, good enough to fool me in a bad light. The body still remained female, however. He was getting tired. He must've chugged a gallon of nutrients in anticipation of my arrival to be able to pull this show off.

"I can give you a friend." Saiman-Derek grinned. "Guilt-free. Nobody would ever know. All the secret faces you picture when you pleasure yourself? I can give them to you in the flesh."

Derek just stared, speechless, an expression of utter disgust stamped on his face.

"Is there a point to this demonstration, besides upsetting my stomach?"

Saiman sighed. "You refuse everything I offer, Kate. It hurts my pride."

I crossed my arms. "I refuse because no matter what shape you wear, I know it's you. And you don't really want me for who I am. You want me because I said no."

He considered it. "Perhaps. But the fact remains: by refusing me, you are now my ultimate luxury. That one thing I can't have. You won't see me. You don't return my phone calls. All my attempts to apologize for my behavior during the flare have gone unanswered. It's very difficult to seduce a woman when she refuses to acknowledge your existence. I'm looking forward to having you to myself for an entire night."

"Fucking pervert." Derek finally found adequate words to express his take on the situation.

"I prefer the term 'sexual deviant' myself," Saiman said.

"When I get out . . ."

I raised my hand, halting Derek's promises of very painful and highly illegal things he would have liked to inflict on Saiman. "I'll come with you to the Games." Even if I would rather clean an outhouse. "In return, you acknowledge that Derek never broke into your apartment and you'll surrender all evidence of him ever being present here. Don't plan on a date. There will be no wooing, no seduction, and no sex. That's my best offer and it's not open to negotiation. If you choose to accept it, keep in mind that I'm still a representative of the Order, attending a highly illegal event. Don't put me into the position where I feel compelled to do something about it."

Saiman rose, walked over to the room that served as his lab, and returned with a stack of digital printouts showing Derek in the cage in all his glory. He handed me the pictures, turned on a digital camera, and wiped the memory card clean.

Derek's mask slipped and beyond it I saw guilt. Good. I planned on cashing in on that guilt to get him talking.

Saiman raised a remote, pressed a button, and the cage door fell open. Derek surged up and I stepped between him and Saiman before he could add murder to his list of transgressions.

"I'll pick you up at your apartment at ten," Saiman said.

THE GLASS DOORS OF THE LOBBY SHUT BEHIND US and I let out a breath. The sunrise was still a long way off, and the parking lot lay steeped in darkness, the night breeze cool and cleansing after the perfumed atmosphere of the high-rise.

Derek shook his head, as if clearing fog from his skull. "Thanks."

"Don't mention it."

"I shouldn't have gone through the window." Derek measured the tower with his gaze. "I figured fifteenth floor, sure bet the window would be unprotected. But he's got the whole place booby-trapped."

"He had issues with breaking and entering a few years back. That's why I had to bodyguard him for a while." A vivid image of a man with a pencil through his left eye orbit flashed before me, complete with bloody smudges of my fingerprints on the yellow shaft of the pencil. Thank you, dear memory, for once again attempting to sabotage my conversation.

"Saiman takes his security very seriously."


We reached my car. "There was a shapeshifter death on the corner of Ponce de Leon and Dead Cat. Jim was there and a Pack crew. Know anything about it?"

A dark shadow crossed Derek's face. "No. Who died?"

"I don't know. Jim wouldn't let me get within thirty feet of the body." I looked right into his eyes. "Derek, did you have anything to do with it?"


"If you did, you need to tell me now."

"I didn't."

I believed him. Derek had many talents, but lying wasn't one of them.

We stood by the car. Come on, boy wonder. You know you want to tell me what's going on.

"You shouldn't go with that freak." Derek dragged his fingers through his short hair. "He's dangerous."

"I gave my word. I have to go. Besides, Saiman is a degenerate. He's ruled completely by his appetites. For him, there is no higher goal than to satisfy his urges, and that makes him predictable. I'll be fine."

In the distance a dog erupted in an explosion of hysterical barks. Derek glanced in the direction of the sound. A faint yellow sheen rolled over his irises. He focused, leaning forward, light on his toes, listening to the night, the wolf crouching with hackles raised just beneath his skin.

Derek expected to be jumped any second. Something was seriously wrong.


He had pulled the calm back on and his face looked inscrutable. But the beast refused to be completely tamed. It clawed and howled behind his eyes.

"Is this Pack or personal?"


"Does Curran know?"

Derek looked at his feet.

I took that as a no. "Anything I can do to help?"


"I came all this way to bust you out, and you won't even tell me what this is about?"

He shook his head and took off into the night. So much for the guilt.

I watched him fall into that particular wolf gait, long-legged and deceptively easy. He could run like that for days, devouring miles. Derek reached the end of the parking lot, jumped to clear a three-foot concrete wall, and changed his mind in midleap. It was a peculiar thing to see: he shot in the air, unable to stop himself, but instead of going long, he jumped straight up, landed in almost exactly the same spot, turned on one foot, and sprinted to me.

In a breath he halted by my side. "I lied. I need your help."

"Who are we killing?"

"Do you have a pen?"

I got a notepad and a pencil out of my car. He scribbled something on a piece of paper, tore it out, and folded the paper in half. "Promise me you won't read this. This is important. This is the most important thing I've ever done. At the Games there will be a girl. Her name is Livie.

She's on the Reaper team. There are only two women on the team and she has long dark hair.

Give this to her. Please."

A girl. He risked Curran's rage for a girl.

On the surface, it made sense. He was nineteen and wading through the sea of hormones. But I had never perceived Derek as the type to become blindly infatuated. He took stoic to a new level. More, he worshipped the ground Curran walked on. There had to be more to this.

Unfortunately, Derek's face was doing a wonderful impression of a granite wall.

"You tried to steal the tickets to give a note to a girl?"


I scratched my head. "I know you're in trouble. I can feel it. Usually this is the part where I threaten you with terrible bodily harm and promise to dance on your grave unless you tell me everything you know. There's just one slight problem."

Derek grinned and for a moment boy wonder was back in all his glory. "I won't believe your promises of breaking every bone in my body?"


He barked a short laugh.

"Tell me what this is about. Whatever it is, I will help you."

"I can't, Kate. It's something I have to do on my own. Just please give her the note, okay?

Promise me."

I wanted to grab him and shake him until the story fell out. But the only way to stay in this game meant taking the note. "I promise."

"And swear you won't read it?"

Oh, for the love of God. "Give me the damn note. I said I won't read it."

He offered me the paper and I snatched it from his fingers.

"Thank you." A happy little smile curled his lips. He backed away two steps and broke into a run. Before I knew it, he was gone, melting into the darkness of the alley between the decrepit buildings.

I stood in the parking lot holding his note. A nasty chill crawled down my spine. Derek was in trouble. I didn't know how or why, but I had a strong gut feeling that it was bad and it would end even worse. If I'd had a drop of sense, I'd have opened the note and read it.

I sighed, got into the car, and stuck the paper into my glove compartment. Common sense was not among my virtues. I'd promised and I had to stick to it.

My back ached. Even my bones felt tired. I just wanted to lie down somewhere, close my eyes, and forget the world existed. I buckled my seat belt. I needed to know more about the Games and I needed the information before tonight. In the morning I would go to the Order and check their files. And check on that report from PAD. Nothing said the shapeshifter murder and Derek's mess were connected, but I'd feel better if I ruled that possibility out.

Even though the Pack was handling the murder. Even if it wasn't my case. And that didn't bother me one bit. Nope, not at all.

I sat in my car, feeling the fatigue wash over me, and thought of Curran. Two months ago I'd found the Beast Lord in my house reading a book. We made some small talk, I threatened him with bodily harm if he didn't leave, and then he moved like he would kiss me. But instead he winked, whispered, "Psych," and took off into the night.

He had made me coffee. I drank every last bit of it that night.

I wasn't sure if he would come back, but if he did, I wanted to be prepared. I had imagined our encounter a dozen times. I had constructed long conversations in my head, full of barbs and witty comebacks.

The bastard didn't show.

The longer his MIA lasted, the surer I became that he would never show up. It was blatantly obvious - he enjoyed screwing with me, and having done so, he got all funned out and moved on. Perfectly fine with me. Best solution possible. I had dreamt of him once or twice, but other than that, everything was peachy.

Wherever this thread of Derek's troubles led, I really didn't cherish the idea of finding Curran on the other end.

It was always good to have a Plan of Action. I started the engine. Item one of the POA: avoid the Beast Lord. Item two: do not fall asleep.

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