I was in the decoy kitchen, sliding the first batch in the oven, when something brushed against the edge of my outer ward. It was almost eight in the evening. Took them long enough.
I draped the kitchen towel over my shoulder and walked to the front door, left open to vent the heat from the stove. The sunset burned across the sky, a gory, violent orange. I concentrated, sinking into my enhanced vision. Three… two…
Contact. Magic nipped at me. A bright green flash pulsed in the empty air and vanished. To the left, a dark four-legged shape jumped out from behind some rubble and dashed down the street, little more than a blur in the fading light. The shapeshifter who’d found my house hurrying to report.
I went back to the kitchen, sat at my strategically sad table, and waited. I felt spent. Fatigue wrapped around my shoulders like a heavy blanket. Too much magic expended too quickly this afternoon setting up the defensive perimeter.
I’d learned the art of wards from my grandfather.
When I was a teenager, my parents enrolled me into a prestigious private school for magically gifted. About midway through my first year there, one of my instructors told me I had an incurable case of whyitis. For me, it wasn’t enough to figure out how things worked; I wanted to know why. Unfortunately, three and a half decades since the Shift hadn’t given humanity enough time to accumulate more than a cursory understanding of magic. A lot of our lessons consisted of a practical demonstration and a set of instructions: do things this way and don’t deviate. We know this way works. Nobody can explain why. Experiment at your peril. Try not to harm your classmates if you explode.
I’d felt like a car stuck in the mud. I was spinning my wheels as fast as I could and getting nowhere.
Then my grandfather tore onto the scene like a magic hurricane. He and Mom narrowly avoided killing each other right away, settling into an uneasy peace. He wanted a spy in Mom’s camp, so he approached me one day and invited me to the tower he was building on the edge of her territory. In my naïve little head, I saw it as a grand opportunity to spy on him.
Grandfather had lived for nearly 4,000 years and his grasp of child development had been somewhat shaky. He tried to entertain me with cute magical contraptions he’d made, as if I were five. After about an hour of that, I told him I had to go back to do my homework. He asked to see my homework. He leafed through my textbooks. Then he very carefully asked if my mother actually paid money for my education. That’s when I learned that when people in our family become outraged enough, they can crack solid stone with a word.
They had to redo the entire left wing of the wall after that. He’d fractured the two floors and four feet of foundation. He was so offended, his left eye actually twitched. It was kind of funny. Terrifying in the god-like cosmic power suddenly unleashed kind of way, but also funny.
After we moved to a safer ground and he’d calmed down enough to stop ranting about dilettantes, imbeciles, and toddlers teaching newborns about quantum physics, he gave me my first lesson in the magic theory right then and there. From that point on, I went to the tower as often as I could. I’d visited the Blue House in Burmingham, his “country estate,” which was only a ninety-minute leyline ride away. I even teleported to his Swan Palace, more than once, despite knowing that teleporting through the unpredictable chaos of magic and tech was like playing Russian roulette. I wanted to understand my power. I was also an idiot teenager who thought she was immortal.
In the end neither of us fooled the other. I loved my mother too much to ever betray her, and he was too shrewd to allow a child a glimpse of his plans. Still, the lessons continued. My grandfather had an entire universe of magic in his vast brain. He loved to teach, and I’d been hungry to learn. Later my grandmother and her servants refined my education, but the foundation of my magic expertise was built by Roland. If you have to learn magic, studying under a brilliant megalomaniac wizard who thinks he was always right and can’t wait to dazzle you with four millennia of knowledge is a really good choice.
In the few hours since coming back from Central Market, I set three concentric rings of wards. I’d need to add four more to them over the next few days, so they would form a Darius pyramid and quadruple my defensive capabilities in emergency, but time was short and for now three was plenty.
The outer ward, undetectable by most of the people and creatures who crossed it, warned me that someone was coming, sampled the intruder’s magic, and flashed it in a burst of color invisible to anyone who wasn’t sensate, letting me know the nature of the threat. The middle ward wrapped around the building, shielding the front entrance. I’d chosen a runeward, a simple defensive barrier that relied on Elder Futhark runes carved on bone stakes driven into the ground, solid, powerful, and common enough to not raise any eyebrows. It was also the first ward the Order’s Academy taught to prospective knights, so it went along with my disguise.
The third ward sealed off the hallway leading to the front bedroom and to the secret door, shielding the entire inner chamber. I had raised Enki’s Shield in four hours instead of the full twelve it usually required and got a throbbing headache for my trouble. Still, Grandfather would be proud.
I missed him. His prison was accessible from anywhere, and I visited him often. It had been a month since my last trip, but I wanted to wait until I had something concrete to discuss. Visiting my grandfather was like dancing with a king cobra. You never knew if he would strike, so it was best to bring a bribe.
Magic pinched me. I peeked out of the kitchen in time to see the street light up with green through the doorway. Ascanio walked out of the shadows and strolled up to my house. I thought that trail of grass green I’d noticed at the murder scene looked familiar.
Someone from the Pack was interested in Pastor Haywood’s murder and they sent Ascanio to figure it out. Why? Had this order come from the top? Or was this a Clan Bouda affair? Was someone pulling his stings or was he doing it on his own? All good questions.
Ascanio was never big on following orders. It wouldn’t be out of character for him to do this on his own, but he never acted without aiming for some sort of benefit.
He knocked on my doorframe. I walked out of the kitchen and to the front door.
“The shapeshifer hero. We meet again and so soon.”
Ascanio stared. Before I was on horseback, in the dark, a dozen yards away, with my hood up. Now less than three feet separated us. He could see my face and it burned a fuse in his brain. For a moment Ascanio forgotten to be suave and simply stared with unnerving, focused intensity.
My timer went off.
Ascanio blinked. “Are you baking cookies?”
“Yes, I am. Excuse me.”
I went into the kitchen. Behind me, magic tolled through the house, like a gong. Ascanio had tried to follow and walked right into my second ward.
I pulled the first batch of cookies out of the oven, slid the second tray in, reset my mechanical timer, and went back to the door.
Ascanio leaned in the doorway, arms crossed, a slight smile on his lips. It had to be his sexy, nonchalant pose. I wasn’t sure if I was expected to toss my underwear in his direction or just fall back with my legs in the air. He’d realized that he stared like an idiot and now he was trying to recover, like a driver who drifted onto the shoulder and overcorrected trying to get back in his lane.
“Keeps out the riff raff.”
A ruby light rolled over his irises. “Can I have a cookie?”
He gave a mock sigh. “I have a feeling this conversation has gotten off on the wrong foot.”
“Not just a hero, but a master detective as well. I can’t wait to be dazzled by your brilliance.”
“I’m not just a pretty face.”
“I don’t recall saying you were pretty.”
The smile stayed on his lips, but his posture lost some of its slouching. “Let me tell you what I’ve detected.”
I smiled back at him. “I can’t wait.”
His gaze snagged on my lips. He blinked again.
Lost the train of thought for a second there, buddy?
“You pretended to be a lightweight on the bridge. You visited the Order and you have an Order ID, which says you are assigned to Atlanta, except you’re not, because the Atlanta Chapter never has more than twenty knights and with you, they are up to twenty-one. You used your brand-new ID to gain access to a crime scene, but you aren’t staying in the Order chapter. Instead you’re living in a hovel on the edge of the most dangerous area of the city, flirting with disaster and baking cookies with expensive chocolate chips. I have to ask why the Order is so invested in the Pastor Haywood’s murder that they would bring a knight crusader in for it?”
I gave him a gentle slow clap. It wasn’t a bad assumption. My mom often described knight crusaders as the Order’s janitors. When the Order had a particularly nasty mess on their hands, they threw a crusader at it, who would either clean it up and leave, or die trying. Crusaders worked undercover, their methods were unorthodox even for the Order, and they were given a lot of leeway, because the Order had an option to acknowledge or deny responsibility for their actions.
Crusaders were dangerous as hell and often crazy. They didn’t do what they did for accolades, they did it because they believed in their cause. Before Nick Feldman became the Knight Protector, he was a crusader, one of the Order’s best.
Ascanio pushed away from the doorway and looked past me, at my humble abode.
“This place is a dump.”
“Whoever rented it to you should be barred from owning real estate. Nick should’ve never let you stay here.”
“I like it here. Quiet, picturesque, but now that you’ve visited, I have to put a no solicitors sign up front.”
“I’m not here to sell you anything. But I can offer you better accommodations. You’re new to the city, and this really isn’t a good neighborhood.”
“People keep telling me that.”
“Because it’s true.”
My timer went off again. “Hold that thought.”
I went back to the kitchen, rescued my second batch, and turned the oven off. It was good that gas still burned even during the deepest magic waves.
“Really,” Ascanio called from the door. “I can put you in a better house. Free of charge.”
Too crude for him. He was trying to gauge my reaction. I came back to the front and raised my head, inhaling deeply, the way shapeshifters did when they were trying to catch a scent on the breeze. His eyes widened.
“Do you smell that?” I asked him. “What’s that odor, I can’t quite place it…”
I opened my eyes wide. “Bribery. That’s it.”
He recoiled with theatrical shock. “I come here, I offer you a safer place out of the goodness of my heart, and you accuse me of bribery.”
“I have to ask why the Pack is so invested in Pastor Haywood’s murder that they would send the Beta of Clan Bouda to investigate it, bribe the Atlanta PD to gain access to the crime scene, and then stalk and attempt to intimidate and coerce a knight of the Order?”
“I don’t recall intimidating you. If I wanted to intimidate you, I would break through this ward.” He smiled, showing me his sharp white teeth. “And take all of your cookies.”
He promised to break the ward with complete confidence. That wasn’t arrogance, that was experience talking.
The runic ward would stop an average shapeshifter, but then Ascanio Ferrara had never been average. My father considered Ascanio’s warrior form, a blend of human and animal shapes devastating in combat, to be one of the best, a high compliment from a man who was once Beast Lord.
I’d have to readjust my expectations.
I went to the kitchen, took a cookie, whispered a bit of magic from a forgotten language into it, walked back to the door, and dropped the ward.
I held the cookie out to him. “You think it’s the ward that’s keeping me safe. You want this cookie? Take it.”
He studied me for a moment, his face calculating. He was lighting fast, and he was 99.9 percent sure he was faster than me.
The cookie lay on my palm, waiting. Perfectly harmless.
Ascanio’s nostrils fluttered slightly. He was sampling the air looking for the scent of poison.
I sighed. “Do you want the cookie or not?”
He moved so fast; his hand was a blur. His fingers touched the cookie and went right through it. His fingers brushed my palm, so light, like the touch of a moth’s wing. When I was a street kid, I thought I had a light touch. I thought I was quick. Compared to Ascanio, I was a rank amateur. If I ever held something in my hand and he wanted it, I wouldn’t even notice him taking it.
Ascanio stared at the perfectly solid cookie in my hand.
“What’s the matter?” I asked. “Don’t you want it?”
Moth wings on my palm. He’d tried again.
“Nice trick.” Ascanio said.
“You said you could take all of my cookies and you can’t even grab one. I’m disappointed.” I raised the cookie to my mouth and took a bite. “Mmm. Delicious. You really don’t know what you’re missing.”
He swiped at the cookie, trying to take it out of my mouth. His fingers fanned my lips.
“Hey! Personal space.”
Ascanio opened his mouth.
A female shapeshifter dashed across the yard and slid to a stop next to Ascanio. “I saw him!”
Red burst in Ascanio’s eyes. “Are you sure?”
“Yes!” She waved her hand in front of her face. “I saw his face.”
“We’ll finish this later.” Ascanio spun to her. “Show me.”
They sprinted off into the darkness.
I stepped out and yelled. “Wait! You forgot your cookie.”
A distant howl from Unicorn Lane was my only answer. That was fine. I knew he heard me.
I went inside, sealed the ward, and closed the door behind me. So the Pack, or some part of it, was definitely interested in this murder. Unfortunately, I still had no idea why.
Let’s see, things I learned from this encounter: Ascanio was very fast and he wasn’t shy about using money to get what he wanted. Not a complete waste, but not terribly useful either.
If the Pack wanted access to a murder, they could request it through proper channels. Most of the time, the city let them in. They were the best trackers, and they made an effort to play nice with law enforcement. They also took care of their own criminals, so if a shapeshifter had committed this murder, the Pack would do an internal investigation, apprehend them, and either punish, or depending on the political situation, turn them over to city authorities. It was a win-win arrangement: the Pack avoided unnecessary suspicion and the cops bled less trying to do their job. Subduing an enraged shapeshifter wasn’t a walk in the park.
But the Pack hadn’t requested access. They bribed a cop instead.
So far both Ascanio and Nick were interested in this case and pretending as hard as they could that they weren’t.
I slid the secret door open, entered my real home, and shut the door behind me. It clanged in place with a reassuring thud. The Enki shield flowed closed, cutting off the outside world.
I whispered a word, and the fey lanterns ignited, bathing the chamber in bright soothing light. Yet another benefit of a classical education. My fey lanterns came with a magic off switch and glowed in a variety of colors, while most people’s fey lanterns were blue and glowed continuously when the magic was up. I wasn’t a fan of blue light, except as a rare accent here and there. Too harsh. The yellow and softer white hues made the space feel homey.
I walked to the cauldron. A small fire was already laid out. I struck a match, let it lick strips of paper, and watched the twigs catch.
So far this murder was all questions and no answers.
I took a bag from my desk, got a pinch of powder from it, and tossed it onto the fire. Light surged in a column and unfolded into a view of a house with brightly lit windows. Nick Feldman sat at a kitchen table, by the first-floor window, eating a sandwich and reading a thick book. The view tilted slightly as Abra readjusted his grip on the branch.
“Stay on him,” I whispered.
The raptor clicked his beak in acknowledgement.
I let go, and the flame died down.
The eagle would call to me if anything happened. As long as the magic stayed up, I would know every move Nick made. Tomorrow I would dig deeper, but before I could do that, I needed to figure out where to start.
I pulled a big stack of papers toward me. I had picked them up on my way home, three months’ worth of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Let’s see if anyone announced their discovery of new Christian relics.