An excerpt from Magic Unchained
All rights reserved
T-minus three months and eleven days to the foretold doomsday
Near Chaco Canyon, New Mexico
Cara Liu figured it didn’t matter whether it was a Catholic mass or a bloodletting ritual, funerals just flat-out sucked. More, the grief of losing Aaron—who had been a good guy, always ready with a laugh, a beer, or an ass-kicking depending on the situation—came with an equal amount of fear, because the men and women gathered around the pyre knew damn well that it could’ve been any one of them.
Aaron might’ve been the first winikin to lose his life fighting alongside the Nightkeepers, but it was a sure bet he wouldn’t be the last. With the earth’s magic-wielding guardians decimated and the end-time approaching fast, their new leader, Mendez, hadn’t had a choice. Within a month of Cara persuading fifty rebels to return to the training compound that they and their parents had fled nearly three decades earlier, Dez, had “promoted” the winikin onto Nightkeeper-led fighting teams and put them through a crash course in killing demons and protecting their own asses, roughly in that order.
Sure, the winikin had voted in favor of fighting … but given that the alternative was an apocalypse that would turn mankind into an undead army, what other choice was there? Besides, the winikin were preprogrammed to accede; they were, after all, members of the servant class in the traditional Nightkeeper culture.
At least they had been. Now, they were soldiers.
As the last of them passed by the pyre, thunder grumbled in the distance, warning that the darkening horizon meant business. It had been a dry desert summer, but it looked like the autumn rains were coming sooner than later.
“That’s just freaking great,” Cara muttered to nobody in particular, using irritation to blunt the knowledge that Aaron wouldn’t be dead if it hadn’t been for her. She had tracked him down in a small town in upstate New York, where he’d been teaching high school English and coaching basketball, and she’d persuaded him to come to New Mexico. The world needs you, she’d said. And now, nine months later, he was dead, killed down in Central Mexico when it had turned out that the extermination team hadn’t taken care of all of the infected villagers, after all. There had been one left, and it had gotten Aaron before any of the others had a chance to react.
When Cara’s eyes prickled, she scrubbed at them on the pretext of shoving her black, skunk-striped hair out of her face. She stood apart from the others, halfway up a flight of stone steps that led from the packed earth of the ball court. Wearing slim black pants and a matching blazer punked out with chains and zippers, with her weapons belt conspicuously absent in deference to the ritual, she thought—hoped—she looked calm, controlled and capable. Nobody else needed to know that her insides were churning with anger and grief, along with the unease that had been dogging her for days now, weeks.
Don’t think about it, she told herself. It’s nothing.
Only it didn’t feel like nothing.
If she had been a Nightkeeper, she would’ve thought it was prescience, a foretelling of some dire threat. She was a winikin, though, which meant that the nerves were probably just nerves, brought on by the knowledge that the zero date was almost on top of them and her people weren’t the united force they needed to be. Far from it, in fact.
Don’t think about it, she repeated inwardly, and forced herself to look at the intricately tied funerary bundle that rested atop the pyre. But it was like trying not to think about a big white wolf, because the moment she thought it, boom, there the big furry bastard was, smack in the middle of her brain, along with all the other stuff she was trying to ignore. It wasn’t like she was playing ostrich, either. In fact, she was emulating the Nightkeeper warriors and their ability to prioritize their goals and put the needs of the many over those of the few, even if those few were teammates or even their families and loved ones.
Love … Now there was a concept. As was family.
She glanced over at her father, Carlos, who was a stocky bull of an ex-rancher in his fifties. His hair was silver-shot and his face was showing its age now, where before he’d looked a good decade younger than his calendar years. As she gazed at him, his shoulders went suddenly very square beneath his dark suit jacket, letting her know he’d caught her look, though he didn’t respond, didn’t even meet her eyes. The fiercest of the traditionalists, he hadn’t forgiven her for leaving Skywatch in the first place, never mind everything that had happened since circumstances had forced her to return.
Jamming her hands in her jacket pockets, she rocked back on the worn heels of her black cowboy boots. Holdovers from her old life in Montana, they were as much a comfort to her as chocolate or mac and cheese might be to another woman. They reminded her of green meadows, endless gallops and family dinners, all long gone.
She sighed and glanced again at the horizon. “The winds are changing,” she said, pitching her voice so it would carry to her second-in-command, who stood below her on the ball court.
Zane nodded without taking his eyes off the pyre. “We should move this along if we want to beat the rain.” The ex-Marine was at parade rest, though she wasn’t sure if he was standing guard, awaiting orders, or a little bit of both.
He had been one of her first recruits, and although he had carried serious rank out in the human world, he had zero problem taking orders from an inexperienced, pint-sized woman ten years his junior. Rather than joining the others in complaining about how she’d wound up leading the winikin, he had done his damnedest to squelch the discontent and help level things off between the rebels, traditionalists and Nightkeepers. And thank the gods for that, because she didn’t know how she could have gained even a semblance of control without him.
Touching the high-tech bracelet she wore on her right wrist, over the place where she had once been marked with the glyphs marking her as a servant to the coyote bloodline, she murmured into the bracelet’s audio pickup, “Rabbit? It’s time.”
The magi had paid their respects already, leaving the winikin to conduct their own ceremony, as was proper. Cara had decided to break with tradition, though, in having the Nightkeepers’ sole surviving firestarter light Aaron’s funerary bundle—both for the symbolism and because it would ensure a complete burn.
To her surprise there hadn’t been much of a protest, even from the trads. Then again, it wasn’t the first change she’d made, and it sure as heck wouldn’t be the last. Her predecessor, the royal winikin, Jox, hadn’t chosen her to do more of the same; he’d picked her precisely because of who and what she was: a half-human, half-winikin who had been born after the massacre and been raised by the one of the most traditional of the trads, but had no interest in serving the coyote bloodline as Carlos did.
I want someone to shake things up, Jox had written in the sealed letter that named her the winikin’s new leader, and she had done plenty of that. But the countdown to the end date was down to its last three months and a few days now, which meant there wasn’t much shaking room left. At some point they were going to have to go with what they had.
“Here he comes.” Zane tipped his head toward the open end of the ball court nearest to the mansion.
Rabbit approached at a ground-eating jog. Although at twenty-three he was the youngest of the magi by nearly a decade, he looked to be in his late twenties or early thirties, having been aged prematurely by the strange and powerful hybrid magic given to him by his mixed heritage. Gray-eyed, sharp-featured, and back to sporting a short mohawk, Rabbit could’ve stepped right out of central casting for Last of the Mohicans even though his jeans, black tee, Goth-chained boots, and MAC-10 machine pistol were thoroughly modern.
Many of the winikin—and not just the newcomers—were wary of Rabbit, who was a mind-bender and telekyne in addition to being a firestarter. Cara, though, felt a certain nonconformists’ kinship. They were both half-bloods born after the massacre, both prone to making waves. He had the advantage, though—he had more magic than all the other Nightkeepers put together. She just had herself, and the illusion of control.
She came down the steps while he took his place at the foot of the pyre. And, as she hit the ground, she pretended not to see Zane’s outstretched hand. Guilt stung, though, along with a fleeting wish that things were different between them.
Zane was a good man, clean cut and handsome in a blocky, bench-pressed sort of way, and it would’ve make practical and political sense for them to get together, giving the winikin some badly needed stability … But two days ago, when he’d surprised the hell out of her by showing up at the door of her suite with a bouquet of cactus blooms and feelings she hadn’t realized he’d been percolating, he’d put it exactly like that: practical, politically advantageous and stable. That wasn’t exactly the protestation of undying love she would’ve been hoping for … If she’d been hoping for one. Which she hadn’t been, because although circumstances, destiny, or whatever you wanted to call it might have forced her back to Skywatch, she’d be damned if she let herself fall into a relationship because it was practical or con-freaking-venient.
She wanted more than practicality and politics, more than a lover who was her lover because he was right down the hall. No, she wanted sparks, fireworks, affection, trust. A guy who turned her on, adored her, would be there for her no matter what … and in her experience, that combination was about as common as a whale watch in the desert. As in not at all.
Besides, she thought, stifling a sigh as Zane fell in beside her and they crossed the short distance to the pyre together, it wasn’t like she had the time or energy to start something right now. Not even close. She had an army within an army to lead, dissidents to soothe, battles to fight … all in the hopes of making it through to December twenty-second intact and moving on with her life.
That was her promise to herself, the four words that kept her going day after day: I’ll do it after.
After the final battle, when—please gods—Skywatch disbanded and they all went their separate ways, she would throw herself into the hunt and find a job she loved, a man she loved, a life she loved. Sparks, fireworks, volcanic eruptions … she would go for broke and live the life she hadn’t managed to find before Skywatch reopened, when she’d been young and sheltered, or after she’d escaped the training compound to go off on her own, little realizing that her restlessness and chronic poor health had been the magic’s way of saying “get back where you belong.”
Well, she was back at Skywatch, all right, but she still didn’t belong. She was determined, though, to live long enough to escape, and do her part to make sure there was a world worth escaping into. And if that meant falling asleep some nights with her pillow clutched to her chest and her insides so hollow they ached, then that was a sacrifice she was willing to make. That was what she’d told Zane—more or less—the other night, and it was what she reminded herself now as she had to fight a brief and unfair desire to lean into his solid bulk.
Instead, taking a deep, settling breath, she moved into the circle on Rabbit’s right side, which put her next to Natalie, the pretty, blonde—and thank the gods, politically neutral—archaeologist who had become her closest friend at Skywatch. The women exchanged a look, but said nothing. Now wasn’t the time.
When Zane stepped up to complete the circle on Natalie’s other side, face set, Cara nodded to Rabbit. “Go ahead.”
The big, tough-looking mage hesitated, though, and took a long look around the winikin. The pause lasted so long that she wondered what he saw. Did he notice that he was taller than any of them by at least a head, heavier by a good fifty pounds? Did he ask himself what the hell Dez was up to, trying to make the members of the servant class into a fighting force? Or was he thinking about something else entirely?
It was hard to tell with Rabbit.
Finally he said, “For what it’s worth, I think it sucks that the First-Father’s magic has trapped you the way it has. It’s not fair that you don’t have a choice whether to serve or not, and, well …” He scanned their faces, though she didn’t know what he was looking for, still didn’t know what he saw. “Anyway. I’m sorry for your loss.”
He said something else, but Cara couldn’t hear him over the sudden rushing in her ears as his words kicked up memories of one of the things she was seriously trying not to think about: the last funeral she attended.
I’m sorry for your loss, the priest had told her sincerely, and most of the people who filed past the grave had spouted a variation on the theme. She had made the right noises, forcing herself to act the hostess because there was nobody else left to carry the burden. Her mother was in that fresh-turned grave, her father just standing there beside her, staring through the people who stopped to shake his hand and murmur something they thought would comfort. And the fourth member of their strange little family—her so-called foster brother, Sven, who hadn’t been any sort of brother at all—hadn’t even shown up. He was off diving the Great Barrier Reef, he’d said by way of a voicemail, and couldn’t possibly get there in time. So he hadn’t even tried.
That wasn’t the first time Sven had let her down, but it had been the final proof that he cared far more about his adventures than the people who loved him.
Shit. Don’t go there. And for gods’ sake, focus. This wasn’t about her and Zane, wasn’t about her and Sven, wasn’t about her at all. It was about completing the ritual and showing the winikin that she wasn’t dumping all of the old traditions. Just the ones that didn’t make any sense in modern day.
Realizing that Rabbit had started the funerary rite, she winced and made herself dial back in.
“… We ask the First Father, the Hero Twins, and the gods themselves to take the winikin Aaron Rockwell up into the sky to be reborn,” he said, reciting from memory, though she’d told him he could read it. “Since what has happened before will happen again, we will see you anew, brother, in the next cycle of life.” He lifted an oblong bundle wrapped in gray cloth, which he opened to reveal a thin, narrow stone spike that had been carved to resemble the barb of a stingray’s tail and sharpened to a deadly point. Then he turned and handed it to Cara.
Her stomach churned as she took the smooth, thin stone, but there was adrenaline alongside the nerves now. The funeral ceremony was one of the very few rituals that called on the winikin to make their own blood sacrifice, bringing it very close to an actual spell. And there were recent hints that the winikin could do magic, after all. Which had prompted speculations: What if the gods were trying to even out the odds by giving the winikin access to the magic? They were spell-bound to the Nightkeepers, after all. What if there was more to the power?
But although Dez had lifted the stricture forbidding the winikin from working magic—he, too, had been put in place to shake things up—none of them had been able to manage even the simplest spell. More, a search of the Nightkeepers’ vast library had failed to turn up any hint of how a winikin was supposed to work magic, or even if it was possible. She kept hoping, though. And given the nature of the magic and its dependence on blood sacrifice, it was tempting to think that Aaron’s death might be the sacrifice that would open the floodgates.
As she slid her fingers along the spine, all other thoughts fell away, leaving only her awareness of the pyre and the others gathered around her, the sudden tension in the air. Please, gods, she whispered inwardly. Then, steeling herself, she set the spine to the tip of her tongue, then closed her eyes and with a quick, jerky move, drove the bloodletter deep and yanked it free again.
Pain flashed and her stomach lurched as blood filled her mouth, making her want to gag at the salty tang. Instead, she let the blood pool in her mouth, then stepped forward and spat the mouthful of mingled saliva and blood—both sacred to the gods, who had given their blood to create mankind in a land where water was scarce.
Optimism flared for a nanosecond … and then died. Because when her offering hit the pyre there were none of the red-gold sparkles the Nightkeepers talked about seeing, no buzzing hum in the air. All she got was a throbbing tongue, a gnarly case of muck-mouth, and a solid reminder that none of the prophecies ever even mentioned anyone besides the Nightkeepers fighting in the final battle, never mind using magic to do it.
Exhaling, she passed the spike to Zane, who took it without comment and made his sacrifice in grim silence. The others did the same, all the way around the circle until the bloodletter returned to Rabbit, who touched it to his lips and then tossed it on the pyre. Overhead, the storm clouds had blotted out the sun, turning the scene dark and gloomy, though the air didn’t really smell of rain.
Rabbit looked around the circle again, as if he wanted to say something else. But then he shook his head, focused on the funerary bundle, spread his fingers and called fire in the old tongue with a whisper of: “Kaak.”
Energy cracked and a gout of flames erupted from the base of the pyre. The fire geysered upwards in a blaze that rose ten, then twenty feet, and the air went suddenly scorching, burning Cara’s skin. Whoa! She stumbled back, shielding her face with her arm as the churning in her stomach suddenly increased a thousandfold. “Rabbit, dial it down!”
“I can’t!” His eyes were wide, his face ashen with strain as he tried to beckon the power back into him. “It’s not working! The magic is—”
Crack! A huge lightning bolt lashed up from the fiery pillar and speared into one of the black storm clouds. Cara screamed, heart clutching as the cloud freaking detonated, fragmenting into dark chunks that plummeted toward the earth, trailing vapor. The missiles hit in a circular spray in and around the ball court, impacting meteor-fast, shaking the earth beneath her feet and digging huge craters that spewed dirt and broken stone.
“Form up!” Zane shouted to the winikin over the roar of the fire and the aerial cannonade. Some of them responded instantly, scrambling into the four fighting teams; others stood and gaped.
“Get close together,” Rabbit yelled. “I’ll shield!”
Cara went for her wristband, hit the panic button that would broadcast on every available channel and hit all the alarms back at the main mansion, and shouted, “Mayday, mayday. The funeral is under attack!”
“Come on!” Natalie grabbed her arm and dragged her into a stumbling run toward the others as Rabbit started casting his fiery orange shield spell around them.
Catching sight of movement, Cara missed a step and the churning in her gut suddenly condensed to a hard, cold pit of terror. “The craters! Look!”
Shiny black shadows writhed from within each pit, boiling up and over to become dark creatures, huge animals that were twisted from their true forms into hideous monsters. Gods! What were they? How had they gotten inside Skywatch’s shields? She saw jaguars, foxes, eagles, owls, all black and slick, their pelts glued together into slimy spikes by a sticky coating, as if they had just been born, fully formed, from the underworld itself.
The demons screeched and roared as they materialized, a dozen of them and then more, landing with earth-shuddering thuds and casting around momentarily before they oriented on the winikin and began to move. They were slow at first, uncoordinated, as if learning to use their bodies. But that didn’t last long.
Rabbit shouted, “Cara, move! Come on!” He waved to the single gap that remained in the fiery shield, left open for her and Natalie.
Heart pounding, Cara bolted the short distance remaining and shoved Natalie through. “Is everyone—” She turned back and broke off with a gasp as she caught sight of two stumbling figures lagging behind, recognized them. “Zane!”
He was coming toward them half carrying, half dragging Lora, who had been a decorated cop in the outside world, but now was limp and sobbing.
Cara’s breath froze as a huge shadow rose up behind them: a huge eagle with a minivan wingspan and a talon spread the size of a human head, coordinated now and flying with fiendish intent, its coal-red eyes locked on its prey. It was maybe a thousand feet from Zane. Eight hundred. Seven.
He wasn’t going to make it.
Her heart went thudda-thudda, but she didn’t let her voice shake as she said to Rabbit, “Give me your gun.”
His eyes blazed. “No fucking way. I’ll go.”
“You need to protect the others.” The other demons were homing in on the winikin huddled within his glowing shield.
“I—shit. Here.” He tossed the MAC-10. “Go!”
She caught it, fumbled it, then got it in a two handed grip. The machine pistol still felt strange in her hands even after all the training she’d had, as if her body knew on the DNA level that she wasn’t made for fighting. But she hung onto it, fingers slipping with the cold sweat that suddenly bathed her as she wheeled and bolted toward the stragglers.