Magic Strikes Chapter 3

"KATE? "

I have a superior reaction time. That was why although I shot out of my chair, jumped onto my desk, and attempted to stab the intruder into my office in the throat, I stopped the blade two inches before it touched Andrea's neck. Because she was my best friend, and sticking knives into your best friend's windpipe was generally considered to be a social faux pas.

Andrea stared at the black blade of the throwing dagger. "That was great," she said. "What will you do for a dollar?"

I scowled.

"Scary but not worth a buck." Andrea perched on the corner of my desk. Short, blond, and deadly. A full knight of the Order, Andrea had one of those nice-girl faces that instantly put people at ease and made them fall over themselves in a rush to disclose their problems. I once went shopping with her, and we heard no fewer than three life stories from total strangers.

People never wanted to tell me their life stories. They usually scooted out of my way and said things like, "Take whatever you want; just go."

Of course, if the total strangers had known Andrea could shoot dots off dominoes at twenty yards, they might have decided to keep their issues to themselves.

Andrea eyed the file on my desk. "I thought you were off today."

"I am." I jumped down. I had caught three hours of sleep, dragged myself to the office in search of background information on the Midnight Games, and promptly passed out at my desk facedown on the open file despite the near-critical amount of coffee in my system.

Which explained why I had failed to hear Andrea enter the office. Typically I didn't go zero to sixty out of dead sleep unless I was startled.

I rubbed my face, trying to wipe away the layer of fatigue. Somebody had poured lead into my head while I was sleeping, and now it rolled around in my skull, creating a racket. "I'm looking for some info on the Midnight Games."

Unfortunately, the file on the Games proved to be anorexic. Three pages of shallow overview on structure, no specifics. This meant there was another file, a big fat one, with a nice CLASSIFIED stamp on the cover, which put it squarely out of my reach. As security clearances went, mine was bare minimum. This was one of the rare moments when I regretted not being a full-fledged knight. As it was, getting my hands on the secret file would prove slightly harder than getting an ice cream cone in Christian hell.

"I don't know much about it," Andrea said. "But one of my instructors was in it, before the tournament was outlawed. I can tell you a little bit about how it worked back then. Over lunch."


"It's Friday."

That's right. Andrea and I always had lunch on Fridays. Typically she just waylaid me in the office and didn't give me any choice about it. In Andrea's book, lunch was something friends did. I was still getting used to the idea of friends. Steady relationships were a luxury I wasn't allowed to have for most of my life. Friends shielded and protected you, but they also made you vulnerable, because you sought to return the favor.

Andrea and I had worked closely during the flare. I had saved her life; she had saved my kid, Julie, who had started the flare as a street rat with a missing mom and ended it a killer of demons, who lost her mother permanently but gained crazy Aunt Kate. After the flare, I had expected Andrea and me to quietly drift apart, but Andrea had other plans. She became my best friend.

My stomach growled, informing me that I was ravenous. Food and sleep - you could do without one, but not without both. I put Slayer into the back sheath where it belonged, returned the throwing knife to its sheath on my belt, and grabbed my bag. Andrea checked the two SIG-Sauer P226s she carried in hip holsters, patted down her hunting knife and a smaller backup firearm on her ankle, and we were ready to go.

I STARED AT THE HUGE PLATE OF GYROS. "I'VE died and gone to Heaven."

"You have gone to Parthenon." Andrea took a seat opposite me.

"True." The only way I could get into Heaven would be by blowing up the pearly gates.

We sat on the second floor, in the garden section of a small Greek joint called Parthenon. The garden consisted of an open-air patio, and from our table I could see the busy street beyond an iron rail. The only drawback to this place was the furniture. The tables were wooden and decent enough, but they were flanked by uncomfortable metal chairs bolted to the floor, which meant I couldn't really watch the door.

I scooped the meat with my pita. My brain kept returning to Derek with a small smile in the night-soaked parking lot. A big, heavy ball of worry had accreted in my stomach over the past few hours.

I was stuck. Aside from Derek, who wasn't talking, the only people who could shed light onto this situation were Pack members. There might have been a way to broach the subject with them without giving away the facts of Derek's spectacular escapade, but I was too stupid to think of any. And considering the recent death, they would want full disclosure. If I said anything about Saiman or the Games, Derek would be punished. If I said nothing, he might risk his hide doing something idiotic.

Combined with my headache, all this rumination put me into a foul mood. For all I knew, Derek's little note said, "Meet me at the Knights Inn. I bought the rainbow-colored condoms."

Of course, it could also say, "Tonight I kill your brother. Get the stew pot ready."

I should have just read the damn note. Except I'd given my word I wouldn't. In the world of magic, your word had weight. When I gave mine, I kept it.

Besides, going back on my word would betray Derek's trust. Actually, any action on my part would betray Derek's trust: I couldn't read the note, I couldn't ask anybody about the note, and I couldn't refuse to deliver the damn note. I would've really liked to kick him in the head right about now.

To top it off, my calls to PAD cops produced no useful information whatsoever. A dismembered body of a woman was found on the corner of Dead Cat and Ponce de Leon. She was identified as a member of the Pack and the matter was turned over to the shapeshifters.

End of story.

I looked at Andrea. "The Midnight Games."

Andrea nodded. "One of my mentors was in it. The Games are held in the Arena, a bunker of some kind. It's run by the House, which always consists of seven members. They make most of their money off betting on fighters. There are individual bouts, but the big banana is their team tournament. It's held once a year. Fourteen teams participate. Each team consists of seven fighters, all with specific roles."

"They enjoy the number seven, don't they?" I chewed my food. Seven had some mystic significance. Not quite as much as the number three, but plenty: seven wise men of Greece, seven wonders of the world, seven days of the week, seven-league boots, seven poets of Moallakat . . . No clue as to what it meant, if anything. Perhaps the creators of the tournament simply wanted to ground it in numerology.

"My mentor fought as a shoote . . ." Andrea glanced at the street and fell silent. Her eyes narrowed. She looked completely focused, like a hawk sighting a plump pigeon. If she'd had a rifle in her hands, I'd have been worried she was about to snipe somebody.

"Can you believe it?"

I looked in the direction of her stare and saw Raphael. The werehyena loitered across the street, a tall man with coal-black hair, dressed in jeans and a black T-shirt. His hands were thrust in his pockets and he shouldered a backpack. He saw us looking at him and froze.

That's right - you're so busted.

"I think he's stalking me." Andrea glared.

I waved at Raphael and motioned him over.

"What are you doing?" Andrea ground out through clenched teeth. Her face went pale, and I could almost see the faint outlines of spots on her arms.

Raphael attempted a weak smile and headed toward us, zeroing in on Parthenon's doors.

"I want to find out if he knows anything about the Midnight Games. He'll tell me anything if you let him sit with us. I think he really likes you."

An understatement of the year. Raphael carried a huge torch for Andrea. During the flare, when she nearly died, he had bent over backward to take care of her.

"Yeah." Andrea loaded so much scorn into one word, I actually paused.

This was one of those thin-ice areas of friendship, which had a great potential for dumping me into freezing water. "You really don't like him?"

A shadow crossed Andrea's face. "I don't want to be his TWT-IHFB."

"What does that mean?"

"That Weird Thing I Haven't Fucked Before."

I choked on a bite of gyro.

Raphael chose that moment to emerge from the door. Pissed or not pissed, Andrea watched him as he walked toward us and so did I. I practically dislocated my shoulder twisting in my seat so I could catch a glimpse. He moved with an easy shapeshifter grace, a kind of inborn elegance usually reserved for highly trained dancers and martial artists. His black hair, worn down to his shoulders, moved as he walked, absorbing the sunlight. His skin was tan, and his face . . . There was something so interesting about him. Taken by themselves, his features were unremarkable, but put together they somehow combined into an intensely attractive face.

He wasn't handsome, but he drew your gaze like a magnet, and his eyes, deep, piercing blue, were positively smoldering.

You looked at Raphael and thought sex. He wasn't even my type and I couldn't help it.

Raphael stopped a few feet from our table, not sure what to do next. "Hello. Andrea. Kate.

Didn't expect to see you here."

I turned back to the table and heard my back pop. That would teach me.

"Sit down," Andrea hissed.

Raphael gently lowered his backpack with one hand, took the only remaining free chair, and sat, looking a bit on edge. Andrea stared at the street. Together they looked like complete opposites: Andrea was five-two tops, with short blond hair and lightly tanned skin, while Raphael was about six feet tall, with skin the color of coffee with lots of cream, black hair, and intense eyes.

"So what's in the backpack?" I asked. Small talker. That's me.

"Portable m-scanner," Raphael said. "Picked it up from the shop. Been in there ever since the flare - they couldn't test to see if it worked until a magic wave hit."

When it came to m-scanners, "portable" was a relative word. The smallest weighed about eighty pounds. It was good to be a werehyena.

Andrea got up. "I'm going to get some dessert. Kate, you want anything?"

"No," I said.


"No, thank you," Raphael said.

She marched away.

Raphael looked at me. "What am I doing wrong?"

I paused with a piece of pita bread in my hand. "You're asking me?"

"I don't have anybody else to ask. You know her. You're friends."

"Raphael, I've never had a steady boyfriend in my entire life. It's been over a year since I've had sex. And you know how well my last attempt at a love life turned out. I think you were there, weren't you?"

"Yeah. I was the one with the shotgun."

I nodded. "I think we can agree that I'm the worst person you could ask about how to fix a romantic relationship. I don't know what to tell you."

"You know Andrea."

"Not that well."

Raphael looked crestfallen. "It's never taken me this long," he said quietly.

I sympathized. He had pined after Andrea for two months now. For a werehyena, or bouda as they were called, a courtship that long was unheard of. Boudas were adventurous. They enjoyed sex, a lot of it and with a variety of partners. Women dominated the bouda pack, and from what I understood, Raphael was rather popular, both because of his patience and his status as the son of Aunt B, the boudas' alpha. And his looks guaranteed that he wouldn't have to chase nonshapeshifter women for too long before they took him for a test-drive.

Unfortunately, Andrea was not a nonshapeshifter woman, nor was she a bouda. Lyc-V, the virus responsible for the shapeshifter phenomenon, affected animals as well as humans. In very rare cases, the resulting creature was an animal-were, a being who started its life as an animal and gained the ability to turn into a human. Most animal-weres turned out to be sterile, mentally retarded, and violent, but occasionally one could function in a human society well enough not to be killed outright. And even more occasionally they could procreate.

Andrea was a beastkin, a child of a hyenawere and a bouda. She hid it from everyone: from the shapeshifters, because some would kill her owing to an ancient deep-seated prejudice, and from the Order, because the moment they realized she was a shapeshifter, they would jettison her from the ranks. Technically, as a shapeshifter, Andrea was subject to Curran's power, and the Order demanded absolute loyalty. So far Curran hadn't pressed the issue, but he could change his mind any moment.

As far as I knew, only the bouda clan within the Pack, Curran, Jim, Derek, Doolittle, and I knew what Andrea was. And we all quietly conspired to keep it that way without ever actually discussing the subject.

"You really want some advice?" I asked.


"Try to think less like a bouda and more like a man."

He bristled. "What the hell is that supposed to mean? Bouda is what I am."

I wiped the last smudge of tzatziki off my plate with my bread. "She's a knight of the Order.

Only one in eight who enroll into the Order's Academy makes it to graduation. She's worked very hard at being a human. Be her friend. Talk to her. Find out what books she reads, what guns she likes . . . Speaking of books, I can tell you something specific about Andrea, but it will cost you."

"What do you need?"

"The Midnight Games. Everything you know."

"Easy enough." Raphael grinned. "You go first."

"How do I know you'll pay up?"

"Andrea's coming up the stairs. I can hear her. Please, Kate." He did his version of puppy eyes, and I almost fell out of my chair.

"Fine." Kate Daniels, trained negotiator. When in possession of some valuable information, give it away to the first sexy man you see with no guarantee of return. "Lorna Sterling. She writes paranormal romances. Andrea loves her with unholy love. She has a stack of her books under her desk at work. She's missing numbers four and six."

Raphael pulled a pen out of his backpack and scribbled on his forearm. "Lorna?"

"Sterling. Books four and six. Andrea's been haunting that bookstore on the corner for weeks looking for them."

Andrea emerged from the door, carrying a milk shake and a plate of sliced peaches. The pen vanished into Raphael's backpack.

I leveled my hard stare at Raphael. "Give."

"The Midnight Games are forbidden," he said. "By the direct order of the Beast Lord, no member of the Pack may participate, aid, or bet on the Midnight Games."

"That's it? That's all you got?"

He shrugged. There was more to it; I could tell by his face. He was holding out on me.

Bastard. I looked at Andrea. Help me.

She took a peach, bit a tiny piece from it, and licked her lips slowly. Raphael did a stunning impression of a pointer sighting a pheasant.

"How come they're forbidden? Is there a story behind it?" Andrea bit another piece of peach and licked her lips again.

"Yes, there is," Raphael murmured. I almost felt sorry for him. I wonder if that would work with . . . I grabbed that thought and stomped on it before it had a chance to infect my head with nonsense.

Andrea smiled. "That sounds interesting. I'd like to hear it."

Raphael caught himself. "It's not something we explain to outsiders."

"Too bad." Andrea shrugged and glanced at me. "Are you ready to go?"

"I was born ready." I reached for my bag.

"I guess there wouldn't be any harm in telling it this once," Raphael said.

I let go of the bag.

"In two thousand twenty-four, the tournament was still legal, and the championship came down to a fight between the Necro Lords and Andorf's Seven. Andorf was a huge were-Kodiak, twenty-five hundred and eighty pounds in beast form. Had paws bigger than my head." Raphael spread his hands, indicating a paw the size of a large watermelon. "Big, mean, vicious bastard. Loved to fight. He put together a good team, but by that point there were only four of them left: Andorf, a wolf, a rat, and my aunt Minny."

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